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2019 WNBA Draft Analysis: Sparks get bigger with Brown

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The Los Angeles Sparks drafted the 6-foot-7 Brown in the first round, adding even more size to an already formidable frontcourt.

The Sparks selected Baylor center Kalani Brown with the No. 7 overall pick.
Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks headed into the 2019 WNBA Draft in a unique situation. It seemed as if a trade for Wings star Liz Cambage was all but done, and that the Sparks would acquire the center either shortly before or during the draft.

The deal fell apart, though. According to High Post Hoops, the Sparks’ bid for Cambage hit a snag, thus leaving LA with a different decision to make on draft day: who to pick at No. 7? Big names Arike Ogunbowale, Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were already off the board by the time the Sparks were on the clock, so they decided to enhance what was already their greatest strength: their frontcourt.

Brown adds size to talented post rotation

When opponents game plan for the Sparks, their number-one concern is how to deal with forwards Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike. While Chelsea Gray has become one of the WNBA’s top point guards and Alana Beard remains a lockdown perimeter defender, the Sparks will continue to go as far as their frontcourt takes them.

This makes their first-round draft selection an interesting one. Center Kalani Brown — fresh off winning a national championship with the Baylor Lady Bears — is now headed to LA. But how will she fit with the team?

It’s true that low-post players tend to have steep learning curves when transitioning to the WNBA. They need to adjust to the defensive three seconds rule, learn different pick-and-roll actions and move their feet defending in space. With these tasks — especially the latter — Brown will have her hands full.

Still, 6-foot-7 is 6-foot-7, and for all the talent and athleticism among the Sparks’ forwards, they lack a post player who can change a game with size alone. And with Western Conference rivals Minnesota and Phoenix rolling out dominant centers Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner, respectively, LA could use someone to match that height.

That’s not to say Brown will be asked to defend those players on an island, and with Parker and Ogwumike still in their primes, she’ll have to battle with Jantel Lavender and Maria Vadeeva for minutes off the bench. It would be a surprise to see first-year head coach Derek Fisher play her very often, at least early in the season.

Brown’s development, though, will give Fisher extra incentive to let Parker and Ogwumike rest whenever possible. Ideally, by the time the postseason rolls around, the Sparks will have a frontcourt rotation that’s both deep and healthy — two things that were noticeably lacking late last season.

And of course, should the Wings come around and decide to trade Cambage to LA, Brown’s presence will make it much easier for them to include Vadeeva in a return package. But the Sparks will cross that bridge when they get there; for now, they have an enviable amount of size and skill up front to work with.

Marina Mabrey: LA’s next backup PG?

OK, so that’s not exactly set in stone. But the Sparks’ second-round draft pick will enter training camp with a fair chance to make the team’s final roster.

Mabrey possesses two key skills that make her as good a candidate as any to back up Gray. The first is, obviously, her shooting ability: during her time at Notre Dame, Mabrey’s lowest single-season three-point percentage was 38.3 percent. You simply can’t leave her open, which is good news for a team that depends so heavily upon their low-post play.

Mabrey also takes terrific care of the basketball. Though the Irish didn’t employ Mabrey as their sole playmaker, when they did, she was very dependable: per Her Hoop Stats, she recorded an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.44 as a senior, placing her among the nation’s best.

This is more or less all that’s required of a low-usage Sparks guard: get the ball where it needs to go, get out of the way and be ready to knock down an open shot if the defense allows it. Granted, incumbent point guard Sydney Wiese might have the upper hand heading into training camp because of her experience and height, but if Mabrey is thrust into a bigger role this year, she could stick with the team as an end-of-the-bench reserve.