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WNBA Draft preview: The Sparks are expediting their rebuild

Los Angeles doesn’t want to spend any more seasons outside of the playoffs.

Los Angeles Sparks v Las Vegas Aces Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Sparks had their worst season in a decade last year, and they responded with an aggressive offseason that brought in four new contributors via free agency and trade: Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada, Chennedy Carter, and Katie Lou Samuelson.

The bulk of last year’s roster remains as well — and the team extended training camp contracts to Te’a Cooper, Lauren Cox, and Lexie Brown — so the Sparks only have one current opening for training camp, but four picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Perhaps one of the team’s second-round selections will supplant another training camp invite, but for now, the players the Sparks draft have an uphill battle to get to preseason, let alone make the final roster.

Picks: 9, 16, 19, 27

Even though they missed the playoffs in 2021, the Sparks don’t have a lottery pick this season after trading it to Dallas to select Jasmine Walker in last year’s draft. L.A. got back into this year’s draft by trading Gabby Williams to Seattle for Samuelson and the no. 9 pick.

The Sparks have the biggest logjam in their frontcourt, with Cambage, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, and Amanda Zahui B. all on protected contracts. Cambage was the prized addition of the team’s offseason, earning a live press conference outside of Arena; Nneka Ogwumike has been a perennial All-Star up until injuries derailed the first half of her season last year; and Zahui B.’s international form for Fenerbahçe suggests she is primed for a big year.

It would be hard to see a rookie center supplant any of those players this season, let alone Chiney Ogwumike or Maria Vadeeva if the Russian international chooses to return to the Sparks in the future. Walker, who only played a game and half before tearing her ACL in 2021, is also part of the team’s long-term plans. The Sparks slotted her in as a power forward last year, so the minutes at 4 and 5 are essentially spoken for.

In the backcourt is where things get more interesting. Kristi Toliver is the team’s starting shooting guard in the present, but she is an upcoming free agent and 35 years old, so a succession plan should be in place. Carter is ideally the point guard of the future, but the uneven nature of her WNBA career thus far means L.A. could use a backup plan. Drafting a guard in the first round therefore could make some sense.

University of South Carolina vs University of Connecticut, 2022 NCAA Women’s National Championship
The Sparks haven’t rostered a UConn player since 2008. They already have Katie Lou Samuelson now, so would they draft another Husky?
Set Number: X164002 TK1

Christyn Williams and Rae Burrell are two players who have been mocked to the Sparks at the ninth pick. Williams’ strength at UConn was creating shots; her 3-point percentage was above average but her poor free-throw shooting raises some concerns about her ability to score efficiently at the next level, especially after seeing her struggle against South Carolina’s defense in the national championship. However, Williams’ physical tools and ability to get to the basket are attributes that coach Derek Fisher appreciates.

Burrell is more of a throwback shooting guard, who profiles as a good shooter based on her junior season but doesn’t do much else with the ball in her hands. L.A. can also afford to bring her along slowly as Burrell continues to recover from the leg injury she suffered in Tennessee’s 2021-22 season opener.

The 2021 Sparks had some of their greatest success with multiple wings in the lineup, but they don’t currently have the personnel to replicate that, with Brittney Sykes and Samuelson as the only switchable perimeter defenders on the roster. A big guard or forward would thus be a nice fit, especially with Sykes and Samuelson set to hit free agency in 2023. ESPN has Kierstan Bell mocked to Los Angeles at the ninth pick, and Bell would be a coup with her scoring ability and size.

In the second round, it would likely behoove the Sparks to think draft-and-stash, considering their crowded training camp lineup. After trading away Leonie Fiebich and Li Yueru (both to Chicago, incidentally) in the past two offseasons, they can take on the rights of more international players. Jade Melbourne could be available in the second round. Reka Dombai, Pauline Astier, and Kamila Borkowska are all candidates for the 19th and 27th picks.

Atlanta Dream v Los Angeles Sparks
Whoever the Sparks draft will be competing with Arella Guirantes and Te’a Cooper for roster spots.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sparks could have approached this season as year two of a rebuild, but in a market where players want to play, they instead sacrificed next year’s first-round pick to build through 2022 free agency. As a result, they have to win now, lest they surrender another high draft selection in 2023, which features a much stronger crop of players including Aliyah Boston and Haley Jones.

L.A. has most of the pieces in place for a playoff-caliber rotation. Barring injuries, whoever the Sparks draft will be window dressing for this season. But in order for the team to continue on an upward trajectory, the ninth pick needs to be part of a young core with Carter and Walker, and maybe Samuelson if things go well on her fourth team. While the Sparks spent most of the offseason with a focus on the present, the draft is a reminder to also have an eye on the future.