The final dress rehearsal is done. Now Derek Fisher must prepare his cast for opening night.
After the Sparks’ final preseason game against the Las Vegas Aces on Saturday at the Los Angeles Convention Center ended in a tie, Fisher has four days to set his final roster for the Sparks’ 25th season. The team signed 15 players for training camp and needs to settle on 12 by May 12, two days before the team’s opener against the visiting Dallas Wings.
Fisher is feeling the deadline pressure.
“It’s going to be tough, no matter what,” Fisher said after Saturday’s scrimmage ended in an 85-85 tie. “We’re going to have to say no thank you to somebody that deserves to be in the WNBA.”
The ruthlessness of the 12-team WNBA guarantees that talented players will inevitably get cut. It’s especially difficult for young players to break into the competitive league, but first-round draft pick Jasmine Walker made a convincing pitch Saturday.
The former Alabama star had 23 points and nine rebounds, both team highs, while making seven of 11 three-pointers. Her sharp-shooting left an impression Saturday, but it’s the work that the rookie put in before arriving for training camp that impresses the most.
She had already watched film of her Sparks teammates, understanding how veterans like Nneka Ogwumike, Seimone Augustus and Kristi Toliver play. Her research went as far back as some of her teammates’ college careers. Walker, the No. 7 overall pick whom the Sparks traded up to select, was the first Sparks rookie to prepare to that extent in years, Ogwumike said.
“She’s just a sponge,” Ogwumike said. “It’s really refreshing to be able to have a young player that has the maturity and the respect for the game in a way that really shows in her individual [performance].”
Since roster opportunities are so limited, any extra effort helps, forward Nia Coffey said. Making the final cut for Coffey won’t just come down to the 20 points she scored in the Sparks’ first scrimmage or the 11 points, five rebounds and late game-tying basket she added Saturday. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft has already played for three teams in her WNBA career and knows roster decisions also come down to being a good teammate and finding any possible way to add value to a team with championship aspirations.
“If it’s not on the stat sheet, who cares?” said Coffey, who signed a training camp contract during free agency. “I’m just trying to do what I can for this team, I’m here to serve, I’m here to learn and get better.”
Walker could be the only rookie to survive the final cut. No. 10 pick Stephanie Watts showed glimpses of athleticism, but the 5-11 guard contributed just two points and two rebounds in 16 minutes Saturday. Less than a week until the season, second-round pick Arella Guirantes has yet to practice after health and safety protocols delayed her training camp arrival.
Fisher said the team has a core group of eight players, including veterans Ogwumike and Toliver, and recent free-agent additions Amanda Zahui B. and Erica Wheeler. The final four spots are up for grabs.
Among the fringe players could be Coffey, forward Kristine Anigwe and guard Bria Holmes.
Anigwe, a 6-foot-4 forward who played in 17 of the Sparks’ regular-season games last year, averaging 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, could provide much-needed post depth, but she had just four points and three rebounds in 16 minutes Saturday. Holmes had 10 points Saturday.
For Fisher, the decision won’t be just about what players can bring in the upcoming season. The Sparks are entering a new era without Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, and Fisher, in his first year handling both general manager and head coach roles, is aiming to set the foundation for a long, successful tenure.
“We look at this season, the year after and ’23,” Fisher said at the team’s media day. “Who are the players and the people that can help us, starting now, establish the type of foundation, the style of play offensively, the things we want to inhabit, that we want to create defensively — the skill set that you will need in order to compete for championships in this league for the next few years.”