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Sparks "still struggling without Ticha Penicheiro": Young point guards learning on the job

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Coming into Friday night's game against the Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said that she was happy to get their second win on Tuesday, but noted that the team was still struggling without point guard Ticha Penicheiro.

"I thought our team made some progress," said Gillom prior to the game. "We're still struggling without Ticha Penicheiro and that seemed to kinda slow us up at the beginning but I think it's helping Kristi Toliver get a lot of minutes and a lot of playing time and it's only going to make her better. So when we get a healthy Ticha that's when we'll really progress as a team. But I'm really pleased with the way this team is progressing."

Against the Storm, that's partially what played out: Toliver did get the most minutes of any point guard -- in fact, her 26 minutes were third most on the team -- but unfortunately, what happened did not necessarily constitute progress. The Sparks struggled to find a rhythm offensively and before they knew it they were down 20-7 in the first quarter and really never recovered on their way to an 82-60 loss.

"It was a tough loss for us, but we didn't come out and play with a lot of energy to start the game," said Sparks forward Candace Parker after the game. "That's become a trend for us and we have to change that."

One of the biggest statistical problems for the Sparks against the Storm was turnovers and although Parker led the team with a game-high 5 turnovers, the inexperience of the Sparks backcourt could certainly be considered a major contributor to that.

One of the things the Sparks did better when they played even with the Storm in the second quarter was to limit turnovers - they only had 3 for a turnover percentage of 17.87%. However, in the first and third quarters they were over 30% and in the fourth they were at 23.2%. Meanwhile - outside of a physical third quarter that got ugly for the Storm - the Storm had no more than 2 turnovers in any one quarter.

As tempting as it is to attribute the 10% turnover differential for the game (the Storm's 16.85% to the Sparks' 26.17%) to the Storm's defense, a large part of it was simply poor offensive execution and ball handling by the Sparks. Certainly some of that is indeed the Storm's defensive intensity that can disrupt a team's offense, but a large part of it was just mental lapses on the part of the Sparks. Passes were thrown out of bounds or directly to Storm players and ball handlers tried to dribble through double teams on more than one occasion. A large part of that was playing without Ticha Penicheiro for all but the first three minutes of the game.

With Penicheiro out, Gillom tried using a number of lead guards looking for answers although they all struggled - Noelle Quinn, Andrea Riley, and Kristi Toliver had turnover percentages of 20.49%, 33.33% and 16.66% respectively. For a brief stretch of the game, Marie Ferdinand-Harris was the lead guard and strictly by the numbers she was arguably the most productive lead ball handler with 2 assist and 0 turnovers. The situation is made all the more difficult when a player like Bird has 5 assists and no turnovers. Ultimately, it's just something the team will have to weather as long as Penicheiro is less than 100%.

"Our inexperienced guards are going against some very experienced guards and she took advantage of that so that's something we have to learn to get better at," said Gillom after the game. "Hopefully we'll learn from this and move on and be ready for Minnesota on Sunday. If not, it's going to be a long season."

The team simply looked out of sync trying to run through their offensive sets without an effective ball handler to manage the team.

Part of the problem for the Sparks that veteran point guard Noelle Quinn is not playing quite as well as she did last season, with a turnover percentage of right around 15% entering the game with an assist rate of 20.49% (compared to 11.88% and 28.21% respectively in 2009). So giving her younger guards Toliver and Riley a chance does make sense, but they're still coming along.

"Kristi's always been a shoot first, pass second guard but I think that she's really developing into that getting her team organized and her shots after that," said Gillom. "She's becoming more of a team player - not that she wasn't before, but I think she sees the importance of [that to] a team like the Sparks. When you have a lot of great shooters you gotta distribute the ball to them as well as get your own shots. We don't want to take that away from her because she is a great shooter, but just don't want that to be always her first shot."

Similar to the way Storm rookie point guard Alison Lacey talked about the value of merely watching veteran point guard Sue Bird, Gillom also noted that Toliver is learning a lot just from getting the opportunity to watch Penicheiro.

"Just sitting on the bench and watching Ticha perform and how we improve as a team when she's in there, that helps Kristi's game as well," said Gillom. "She sees that this team responds a lot better if you give them the ball instead of trying to get your own shot. But I see some improvement there and she's learning. She's learning and the more time she gets the better she's going to be."

Riley obviously faces the same challenge of transitioning from a shoot first guard at Oklahoma State University to more of a distributor on a WNBA team with veteran scorers. In just under 10 minutes a game, she still has the second highest usage rate on the team at 26.50 (the highest is Parker at 28.67). Gillom suggests it's just going to take her some time to adjust.

"It's taking her a little bit longer because Kristi had that first year and gone through the struggles -- Andrea hasn't gone through the struggles yet," said Gillom. "It's hard for her to understand because she's coming out of college being a star player and she has to go through it like every other point guard. And she has to understand too, ‘I don't want to take that'. Because that's her game, that's her energy level. But what I tell her all the time is it's not just on the offensive end, it's what you do on the defensive end as well. I think she's getting there but I think it's just going to take her a little bit longer."

Although Riley's developmental trajectory is different, she is also learning something from Penicheiro. In speaking with Riley prior to the game, what she's learning is the patience required to weather the struggles in the process of "getting there".

"Just to stay positive because you never know," said Riley when asked what she's learning from Penicheiro. "You always have to be patient, take everything with a grain of salt, and try to get better. And listen and do whatever you gotta do to enjoy the moment and not try to make a scene about anything or be so negative that it takes you out of your game."

Of course, all of that said, neither getting more production out of their young point guards nor getting Penicheiro back would solve all of the Sparks' problems -- the Storm jumped out to an 8-2 lead with Penicheiro in the game that ballooned into a seemingly insurmountable 20-7 lead after Penicheiro left. So similar to the way I would argue the point guard position was never the sole problem for the Sparks during former coach Michael Cooper's tenure, it's worth noting that turnovers and the point guard situation have not been the only challenge for the Sparks this season.

The retirement of center Lisa Leslie has left two "voids" -- they lost one of the league's top rebounders as well as the Sparks' heart and soul since the inception of the WNBA. Although Gillom said that Parker is slowly growing into the role of leader, there's still the issue of getting beaten on the offensive boards.

"That's the first thing I expressed on the board -- that we have got to box out and we have got to eliminate them getting second-chance points," said Gillom after the Storm game in which 2nd chance points were almost even, but the Storm won the battle of the offensive boards 44.8% to 31.3%. "We didn't do that and that's why the score is the way it is."

Then again, part of the Sparks' 2-7 start could simply be misfortune -- they've lost two games by 1 point to the Mercury and have now had to play the 9-1 Storm who most coaches seem to agree is the best team in the league. If a few balls bounced their way -- or, to wit, if they got one or two extra offensive rebounds against the Mercury -- and they got a friendlier early-season schedule, the team could conceivably have a winning record right now.

Nevertheless, there are things that a player like Penicheiro -- or Sue Bird for that matter -- bring to the court that might not be immediately obvious to the casual fan.

"Ticha has a state of mind that's unbelieveable," said Riley before the game in which she had 3 points on 1-4 shooting, 0 assists, and 2 turnovers in just under 11 minutes. "She doesn't worry about anything, she's not negative at all, and she's positive."

Perhaps adopting Penicheiro's attitude is as important as having her on the floor right now.