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2021 WNBA Draft Preview: Los Angeles Sparks could be choosing between Onyenwere and Walker

The Los Angeles Sparks don’t have any true small forwards under contract and the big-name small forward in this year’s draft is UCLA’s own Michaela Onyenwere. However, Jasmine Walker of Alabama may be the better offensive weapon.

Las Vegas Aces v Los Angeles Sparks
Who will join Nneka Ogwumike in LA?
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks have had five winning seasons in a row, but haven’t made it back to the WNBA Finals since 2017 and bowed out in the second round last year. With no more Candace Parker or Chelsea Gray, LA will look to rebuild around Nneka Ogwumike.

Picks: No. 10, No. 22, No. 28 and No. 34

Needs: small forward and point guard depth

The Sparks don’t have enough money to keep both the No. 10 pick and a 12th player if that 12th player costs $70,040. Seimone Augustus, Nia Coffey and Bria Holmes all cost that much and there’s reason to believe the team would be interested in keeping either Augustus or Holmes in particular. That just may not be in the cards.

LA could however keep the No. 10 pick and second-year player Te’a Cooper at the player minimum of $58,710. That is likely what will happen seeing as Cooper has a bright future and a good chance of beating out the Sparks’ later draft picks for a roster spot.

The No. 10 pick will be important for the Sparks, who are looking to rebuild after losing franchise cornerstone Candace Parker and star point guard Chelsea Gray in free agency. The team doesn't have any small forwards under contract so that is definitely a need.

UCLA small forward Michaela Onyenwere staying in LA to play for the Sparks would be the fairy tale scenario, though she may not fall all the way to 10. Our draft expert Eric Nemchock has her going at No. 7 to Dallas, but ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel has her falling to No. 11, so it’s possible she’ll be available for the Sparks.

Onyenwere is strong and athletic at 6’0” and improved her basketball skill set in college after starting with track earlier in her life. She has a great mid-range game that includes a back-to-the-basket fallaway and can also finish well inside. Outside shooting has not been a big part of her game, but that’s something she’ll likely try to improve on in the pros. As an overall basketball talent, she is one of the best players in the draft class and would be a huge get for LA at 10.

However, an interesting move for the Sparks would be taking Jasmine Walker of Alabama if Onyenwere isn’t available or maybe even if she is. Walker is 6-foot-3 and listed as a power forward, but moves like a small forward with a great face-up game and great driving abilities. Her physicality and strength will be coveted in this draft and she can flat-out shoot and score as well. She averaged 19.1 points per game as a senior with a 39.8 shooting percentage from three (78 makes).

Walker is projected to go at No. 9 to the Minnesota Lynx in both our mock draft and the ESPN mock draft, so that would be gut-wrenching for the Sparks if they are seriously interested in her. But if both she and Onyenwere are available at No. 10, they should seriously consider taking Walker. She may have the more pro-ready game right now. However, it is more likely that the Sparks will go with the UCLA product who may end up being the better player down the line.

While it’s great that two potential impact players could be available at small forward at No. 10, it’s not a great sign for LA that both have a good chance of going earlier than 10. If the Sparks don’t have the opportunity to draft either Onyenwere or Walker, they would be looking at DiDi Richards of Baylor, Maxuella Lisowa-Mbaka of Belgium and Ivana Raca of Wake Forest as their next-best small forward options, none of whom is a first-round talent. In fact, LA could potentially wait until their second pick at No. 22 to draft those players.

So, if a small forward is what the Sparks are looking for, they may just have to keep their fingers crossed and look to a different position if it doesn’t work out with Onyenwere or Walker.

LA’s point guard situation could be the next area of focus in this draft. It has Erica Wheeler, one of the more underrated free agency gets of the offseason, and Cooper as Wheeler’s probable backup. Could they go for a depth at the position at No. 10 or later in the draft?

National champion at Stanford Kiana Williams would be available at No. 10 according to Nemchock. Williams has a diverse offensive repertoire and is a great team leader. If she falls to 10, she’ll likely be the best option for LA, assuming Aari McDonald of Arizona and Dana Evans of Louisville don’t fall that far.

Of course, if Onyenwere, Walker and Williams are all taken before 10, or even if their not, taking the best available player regardless of position is always an option. If the first five picks are Charli Collier, Awak Kuier, Rennia Davis, Arella Guirantes and Aari McDonald in some order, the Sparks will be guaranteed a shot at either power forward Natasha Mack of Oklahoma State or shooting guard Chelsea Dungee of Arkansas if Onyenwere, Walker and Williams are all taken. Both could make immediate impacts.

At No. 22, point guard Shyla Heal of Australia would be a steal if she’s still available. If she’s not, Kysre Gondrezick of West Virginia, Destiny Slocum of Arkansas, Richards (who played point guard as a collegiate senior), Selena Lott of Marquette, Tiana Mangakahia of Syracuse, Micaela Kelly of Central Michigan and Marine Fauthoux of France would be some options.

Mock drafts vary on where these players will go and its difficult to guess which ones WNBA general managers really value and who the Sparks in particular value. But Gondrezick is as gifted a scoring guard as you will find and Mangakahia is an assist machine. Picking one of those two may be the way to go and with the Sparks already having a scoring point guard in Kristi Toliver, they may look to the distributor. Mangakahia was projected to be a first round pick entering her senior season before having an off year.

With picks No. 28 and No. 34, the Sparks will be looking at the same group of point guards as well as Lisowa-Mbaka and Raca at the 3. While non of LA’s non-first-round picks has a good shot of making the roster, they could be given the chance to compete at training camp and could try to get signed by another team at some point.