The 2021 WNBA Free Agency period saw what may be one of, if not the biggest, free-agent signings in WNBA and Chicago sports history when Candace Parker, 13 year veteran with the LA Sparks, chose to follow her heart home and sign with the Chicago Sky. Not long after, the teams designated “Point Gawd” Chelsea Gray signed with the Las Vegas Aces, leaving Sparks fans wondering what their team will look like this coming season with two of their core big three players no longer with the team.
After Parker and Gray’s departure, the Sparks acted quickly in making some moves and adapting their roster. After her own re-signing, Forward Chiney Ogwumike spoke about the team’s new era: “Obviously Chelsea and Candace have been a huge part of the Sparks success for a number of years and now as we transition to this new stage…we still have tremendous talent and leadership..with my big sis (Nneka Ogwumike) and the new pieces that we are acquiring, I think you can only be excited especially if you’re Nneka or myself.”
Nneka Ogwumike, now the longest tenured Spark going into her tenth season, re-signed shortly after her sister. Other returning players include Brittney Sykes, Te’a Cooper and Seimone Augustus, whilst the Sparks also added Erica Wheeler, Amanda Zahui B. and Bria Holmes.
Chiney Ogwumike had high praise for the Spark’s new players and gave her perspective on the team: “While many people might be focusing on what we do not have, what we do have actually can hold us together pretty nicely as a team. And I think everyone has a chip on their shoulder here, as well”
Erica Wheeler joins the Sparks after four seasons in Indiana, where she averaged 10.1 points shooting 42% from the field, a career best 5 assists and 3 rebounds per game along with 1.2 steals in her 2019 season. Wheeler, a 5″7 Guard from Florida, was the 2019 WNBA All Star MVP – the first undrafted player ever to win the award – and she is the epitome of a ‘never give up’ attitude.
Chiney Ogwumike highlights Wheeler as a player who has “improved her game each and every year, is a fierce competitor and as a point guard, someone that can just slice and dice and hit you with these pocket passes that are great and just knows how to elevate the mindset too of a team to compete as we saw with Indiana.”
Wheeler was unable to play the 2020 season in the WNBA Bubble due to medical protocol but has been making an impact overseas in Turkey for Izmit Belediyespor the last few months. She helped the team qualify for their first Euroleague appearance with a 20 point, 5 rebound, 6 assist, 4 steal game in a win over Hungarian side Aluinvent DVTK Miskolc. Although Izmit’s Euroleague run ended in the first round, Wheeler contributed 16.1 points per game, second only in scoring to the team’s Brazilian Centre Clarissa Dos Santos (with 16.3). Wheeler added 4.9 assists per game and dropped 25 points on 72% shooting in a hard fought, two point loss to Nadezhda.
Speaking at her introductory press conference, it was clear how hyped Wheeler was to be in LA. When asked about her comments in her recent Players Tribune article: “Nneka (Ogwumike): You ready to create one of the most unstoppable pick-and- roll combos in the W?”, Wheeler was visibly excited whilst talking about the possibilities of that on court relationship with Ogwumike:
“I think its going to be dangerous…me coming off the pick and roll my ability to be able to shoot, you’re not going to under the screens your going to come over and if the big is too low, I’m going to take the shot and even if the big has me that means Nneka is maybe by herself….I think its going to be amazing. Teams are really going to have to guard us honest.”
LA then looked to plug the rebounding gap that Parker would leave, signing Centre Amanda Zahui B.from the New York Liberty. Zhaui B, was second only to Parker in defensive rebounds per game during the 2020 season with 7.8. With 9.0 points and 1.2 blocks per game, Zahui B is a player that is as comfortable in the post as she is from beyond the arc. Her ability to stretch the floor will provide matchup problems for opposing teams.
“(With Zahui B)…having that versatility at the post position overall ….her being a sniper pretty much a guard in a post body but also someone that can mix and bang, those are essential pieces that we need to succeed this year.” – Chiney Ogwumike
The Sparks then boosted their already intimidating defence and added Bria Holmes who played the last two seasons for the Connecticut Sun. In just under 16 minutes per game she averaged 5.6 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.0 assists. Adding Holmes, a defensive minded player, alongside Brittany Sykes and Te’a Cooper will create problems for the opposition. Sykes received a 2020 WNBA All Defensive Second Team selection and Cooper, who proved herself a tough and physical defender in her rookie year, has her sights set on her own an All Defensive team nod this season.
The players have high expectations for the season and are excited to get started with this group, they know that those expectations from outside the team may not be as high as in years past, but that isn’t something they concern themselves with. As Chiney Ogwumike explains:
“As a member of the Sparks…I know exactly what we are going to try accomplish this year and it doesn’t matter what other people think. As a competitor… all I personally focus on is bringing my best self each and every day…I’m excited for us”
Fans around the league and other teams may be focussing on the loss of Parker and Gray as the 2021 season gets underway but these players aren’t. Unstoppable pick and rolls, aspirations for defensive awards and a chip on their shoulder? Don’t sleep on the Sparks this season.