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7 things we learned from the Mercury-Sparks preseason opener

The Phoenix Mercury opened its 2019 preseason with an 82-75 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. Candace Parker suffered a hamstring injury in the loss. Here’s what we learned from the game.

Sophie Cunningham (right), the all-time leading scorer in Mizzou women’s basketball history, gets approval from Leilani Mitchell (center) and Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello (left) during her WNBA debut.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks and Mercury opened their 2019 WNBA preseasons at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix before a crowd of just shy of 3,500. After six lead changes and the game tied nine times, the Mercury forced the 82-75 win by dominating the fourth quarter, 21-12. All-Star DeWanna Bonner scored a game-high 20 points, but flirted with a double-double by grabbing eight rebounds. Ashley Walker led the way in the Sparks’ loss, with 16 points and seven rebounds. But that’s the just the beginning of the story.

Here are the seven biggest takeaways from the Sparks-Mercury preseason opener:

Sophie Cunningham off the bench is still Sophie Cunningham

No. 13 overall draft pick Sophie Cunningham made the most of her WNBA debut by scoring 10 points off the bench in just under 22 minutes of play. She picked up five personal fouls — rookie mistakes that will improve over time — but made other impressive contributions: three steals, two rebounds and two assists. She shot a stunning 66.7 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point distance. When Diana Taurasi returns from her back injury, the Phoenix Mercury could be one of the most dangerous teams in the west because of the bench depth added by Cunningham.

A hamstring injury for Candace Parker naturally sparks concern

Candace Parker went down in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. She did not return to the court and is expected to be reevaluated by the Sparks’ medical team in forthcoming days. Presumably, this will include an MRI to determine the extent of the injury. With Parker in Saturday night’s starting lineup, a prolonged absence could shake up the plans of Derek Fisher, who made his WNBA coaching debut last night.

Welcome to the WNBA, Alanna Smith!

Eighth overall draft pick, Australian national and Stanford standout Alanna Smith made immediate contributions off the bench for coach Sandy Brondello, who she previously played for on the Australian national team. Her scoring numbers were not high (just five points in 25 minutes), but she impacted every aspect of the game: seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocked shots.

The world will have to wait for Kalani Brown’s WNBA debut

The reason for Fisher leaving the reigning NCAA women’s champion out of the lineup is unclear. But it will be interesting to see how Fisher eventually decides to use Brown. If Parker’s injury turns into a protracted absence, perhaps Brown will see WNBA action sooner than later.

DeWanna Bonner picked up where she left off

DeWanna Bonner welcomed Mercury fans to the 2019 WNBA season by flirting with a double-double: 20 points and eight rebounds. She also dished three assists, got three steals and blocked one shot. And her efficiency was off the charts: 66.7 percent field goal shooting, 50 percent three-point shooting and 100 percent free-throw shooting (7-of-7). If Bonner stays healthy, she will be a crucial part of a Mercury championship run.

Let’s pretend Chiney Ogwumike comes off the bench for the Sparks all season ...

ESPN analyst and former Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike played her first minutes in a Sparks uniform last night. Coming off the bench, she scored seven points, snagged four rebounds, dished four assists, stole the ball four times and blocked one shot in just under 25 minutes. Any absence for Candace Parker could complicate matters, but if both Chiney Ogwumike and Brown end up coming off the bench behind Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Chelsea Gray and, say, Ashley Walker (see below), this team will be deep and dangerous.

Could this be Ashley Walker’s time?

WNBA and international basketball journeywoman Ashley Walker made a splash off the bench with a team-high 16 points, plus seven rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot. Walker was picked 12th overall by the Seattle Storm in the 2009 WNBA Draft. But, after one season, she was waived and experienced short stints with the Tulsa Shock and San Antonio Silver Stars. She played for the Washington Mystics in 2012 and the Connecticut Sun in 2013, before departing for opportunities abroad.

If Walker’s production continues like this, she could find herself building the most successful WNBA season since turning pro. If she comes off the bench as she did last night, L.A.’s bench should be considered the deepest in the league because rookie Marina Mabrey also scored in double figures with 11 points.