INGLEWOOD, Calif.—The Los Angeles Sparks held their annual media day Thursday, bringing them one step closer to kicking off a season marked with immense optimism.
As opposed to years earlier, the entire team was present and healthy today, which is a promising sign for a team that suffered from major injuries and midseason changes in 2015.
"When you look back at last season, not one game did our whole team ever play together," General Manager Penny Toler said. "We have a team that can rock and roll. We are coming with a lot of flavor, and we will bring the heat that L.A. always brings. We aren't going to back down from anyone."
Head Coach Brian Agler enters his second season with the Sparks. Alana Beard says this is a huge advantage for the team.
"We've gone through the first year of him building his culture. We know what to expect now," Beard said. "Our ultimate goal is a championship, but we have the enjoy the process. Everyday our job is to come in and get better as individuals and as a team, and Coach never lets us waste a day."
The term most frequently used to discuss the 2016 Sparks team? Hunger.
"You'll see a team that plays with a lot of unity and hunger," Agler said. "The hungriest teams in this league are the ones that have success."
One thing is clear; the team is hungry for a championship. They are looking to break out of the first-round of playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"We are ready to bring this organization and our city a championship," Candace Parker said. "I can't promise anything, but I know that the championship is on our minds everyday. We will work everyday to put ourselves in a position to get it.
"Our focus now is controlling what we can control. We have all the talent, and we filled every gap. Now we have no excuse. It's just about what we're going to do with it," she said.
The 2016 season brings exciting change for the Sparks roster, most notably with the addition of the true point guard, Chelsea Gray, who was acquired from the Connecticut Sun.
"The guards are the head of the horse," Toler said. "Gray literally passes like Magic Johnson, shoots the 3, and I think people are really going to love her style of play," she said.
Gray's addition allows Kristi Toliver and Ana Dabovic to return to their natural scoring positions.
"Acquiring Gray gives us a chance to let Kristi and Ana play more to their true position," Agler said. "They both can play the point, but Kristi for sure definitely has more of a scorers' mentality. If she has to spend the entire game setting everyone else up, it takes away from her strengths. Ana will still play many minutes at the point guard spot, but this will also allow her to score herself. "
Toliver is excited to get to the 2 more this season.
"I've seen Gray's ability to pass and distribute, and, of course, as a scorer I am excited to be on the receiving end and not always the creator," she said.
In addition to Gray, the Sparks signed Essence Carson from the New York Liberty, who is expected to bring some "East Coast toughness" to the team. Two WNBA rookies from overseas, Evgenia Belyakova and Jelena Dubljevi, also join. Additionally, Ann Wauters returns to the WNBA, to the Sparks after a four-year hiatus.
The only true rookie on the team is second-round pick Whitney Knight from Florida Gulf Coast University.
"I'm super excited and humbled to be here," Knight said. "I'm coming in with an open mindset. Whatever Coach wants me to do, I will do it. I want to do whatever it takes to make the team successful and win a championship."
In August, the WNBA will pause for the Olympic break. Dabovic is the only Sparks player heading to Rio. This is not without controversy. Parker was not included on USA's team roster after leading the team to Gold in both 2008 and 2012.
Toler had a lot to say on the topic.
"I was just like the rest of America—shocked, stunned and in total disbelief," Toler said. "Candace is one of the best players in the world, let alone in America. She is the hardest matchup for any other country or team. You are talking about a player that can play all five positions, and play them well."
Agler agrees. "I don't think this decision was based off of basketball," Agler said. "But Candace handled it extremely well, and she has an opportunity to let her actions speak for herself now."
Although Parker was disappointed, as well, she enters the season with more motivation and focus.
"Now I am able to narrow my focus," she said. "The focus is entirely on the Sparks and this organization. I was ready to go to the Olympics, but sometimes things don't work out. I wish the girls on the team the best."
The official 12-player roster is due Friday. As of now, the Sparks have 13 players on their roster. The current roster is as follows:
0 Alana Beard
3 Candace Parker
5 Jennifer Hamson
10 Evgenia Belyakova
12 Chelsea Gray
17 Essence Carson
20 Kristi Toliver
21 Ann Wauters
23 Ana Dabovic
28 Jelena Dubljevic
30 Nneka Ogwumike
35 Whitney Knight
42 Jantel Lavender
The Sparks officially kick off their season at home Sunday at 2 p.m. against the Seattle Storm.