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Sparks make trio of backcourt cuts

Te’a Cooper, Arella Guirantes, and Kianna Smith were all waived before the team’s opener Friday.

Atlanta Dream v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

The toughest time of WNBA training camp is upon us, as teams have to finalize their rosters players for the start of the season, and cuts come faster than lunchtime at a deli.

The Los Angeles Sparks began the day with 17 players on their roster, needing to trim to 12, or even 11 by Friday. They got closer to that end game by waiving Te’a Cooper, Arella Guirantes, and Kianna Smith, bringing the team’s total to 14.

Of the three, Smith was the least surprising departure. A second-round pick in this year’s draft, the Louisville guard was lauded by head coach/GM Derek Fisher for her shot mechanics, ball handling, and decision-making. Unfortunately, Smith shot 1-of-8 in the team’s two preseason games and had an equal number of assists and turnovers. Already faced with an uphill battle in a crowded guard room, Smith didn’t do enough to distinguish herself during camp.

The returnees Cooper and Guirantes had a lengthier body of work to make their case. Cooper has been on the team for two seasons, though didn’t show much improvement for year one to year two. Her best asset is her ability to get to the rim, but her poor finishing at the hoop renders that less useful. Cooper also is a pest defensively, but at 5’7, that impact is limited. The addition of Jordin Canada, who is better at everything that Cooper does, made the third-year guard a luxury rather than a necessity.

Moving on from Guirantes is more surprising. The Sparks worked hard to keep her on the 2021 roster, trading Fisher and fan favorite Sydney Wiese to the Mystics to create a spot, even after Guirantes was absent from nearly all of training camp. The 22nd overall pick showed steady improvement throughout her rookie season — her plus-minus numbers trended up every month — and at 5’11, has more functional size than Cooper. However, the second-year guard’s inability to score efficiently likely made Guirantes difficult to keep when the Sparks need to make a dramatic improvement on offense this season.

However, though the Sparks had to waive all three guards, their time in Los Angeles hasn’t necessarily come to an end. When the regular season starts Friday, the Sparks will be without three players: Kristi Toliver, who is still coaching the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA playoffs; and Katie Lou Samuelson and Amanda Zahui B., both of whom remain overseas. That makes Los Angeles eligible for at least one hardship contract, and the Sparks could theoretically re-sign any of Cooper, Guirantes, and Smith after they clear waivers, which takes 48 hours — just in time for the season opener Friday.

The question also remains of who will make the final roster. It would seem that L.A. is keeping third-round pick Amy Atwell around longer than expected because the team’s two best shooters (Toliver and Sameulson) have yet to report, and Atwell put on quite the show against Phoenix in the preseason.

Presuming the Sparks roster has nine locks — the six guaranteed contracts of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Toliver, Zahui B., Canada, and Liz Cambage, plus Brittney Sykes, Samuelson, and Chennedy Carter — there are three spots left to fill. All signs point to Jasmine Walker making the team, and L.A. did just spend a first-round pick on Rae Burrell, though first-rounders aren’t guaranteed to stick. Just look at Las Vegas waiving Mya Hollingshed, who was drafted one spot above Burrell.

If Walker and Burrell make the final roster, then the Sparks could keep Atwell or Olivia Nelson-Ododa with their 12th spot, but not Lexie Brown given her higher veteran’s minimum salary. Alternatively, Los Angeles could keep Atwell now, while more in need of her shooting since Samuelson and Toliver are away, and then waive her to sign Brown later in the season. At that point, the prorated value of Brown’s contract would fit into the Sparks’ remaining cap space.

To be clear, this is all speculation. L.A. could elect to start the season with 11, though the front office has expressed a strong preference to carry 12 players. The Sparks might have their eye on a player who has been waived by another team or even another trade in mind. The front office has been aggressive and creative when managing the roster in recent seasons, making it hard to predict what moves will come next.

For now, the Sparks are one step closer to a final roster. How many steps are left before that list of 12 comes through remains to be seen.