Sparks look forward to new era with newcomers and veteran starting lineup – Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES — The rebuilding Sparks are entering a new era and do not have an established superstar on the roster for the first time in the franchise’s 28-year history, as the organization is focused on the development of rookie forwards Cameron Brink and Rickea Jackson, the No. 2 and No. 4 overall picks in last month’s WNBA draft.

Gone are the days of two-time WNBA champion Lisa Leslie, who played for the Sparks from the league’s inaugural season in 1997 until 2009. Toward the end of the Leslie era came Candace Parker, the organization’s next franchise player and one who instantly rose to stardom by being named the WNBA’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2008, a feat no player has duplicated. Parker starred for the Sparks from 2008-2020, highlighted by winning the 2016 WNBA championship, which overlapped with 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike’s successful tenure from 2012-2023. Ogwumike signed with the Seattle Storm during the recent free agency period.

The Sparks’ 2024 roster features six returning players (Lexie Brown, Rae Burrell, Zia Cooke, Dearica Hamby, Layshia Clarendon and Azurá Stevens) and six newcomers (Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson, Aari McDonald, Kia Nurse, Stephanie Talbot and Li Yueru).

The projected starting lineup for Wednesday’s season opener against the Atlanta Dream at Long Beach State is 2017 All-Star point guard Clarendon, shooting guard Brown, 2019 All-Star guard Nurse, rookie forward Brink and two-time All-Star forward Hamby (2021, 2022).

“I like the chemistry of our first unit that we’ve used in both exhibition games and everyone else is getting accustomed to how we’re doing things in scheme,” Miller continued. “We’re still throwing so much at them early in the year with the shortest training camp in the history of the league but I appreciate their openness and willingness to learn.

“Now we have to go back and clean things up. We know May basketball at times is not what playoff basketball or late-season basketball looks like in the W, but I’m excited with how much we’ve thrown at them and their willingness to keep learning and absorbing.”

The goal is to become a team that plays with an up-tempo style focused on offensive spacing created by the gravity of above-average 3-point shooting.

“My assessment is we are young,” Sparks guard Lexie Brown said. “We’re like little babies so it’s been really fun seeing everybody’s mind working and figuring it out. It’s been a whirlwind for the rookies for sure so we’ve been trying to be there for them, being the best vets that we can, but it’s been a lot of teaching and a lot of learning, but it’s been a lot of positive energy, which has been really great.”

The Sparks finished last season with a 17-23 record and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. It was an injury-riddled season in which only one player, Hamby, played all 40 regular-season games, after returning to action less than two months after pregnancy.

“It feels like Year One,” said Miller, who is entering his second season as the Sparks’ head coach. “We have a lot of new players, building with two draft picks, lottery picks.

There is already one significant injury issue. Stevens, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and started 29 of 35 games last season, is out with an arm injury and will be re-evaluated in mid-June.

The Sparks’ opening night second unit will center around Jackson, guard Cooke (the Sparks’ 2023 first-round pick), guard/forward Burrell (the Sparks’ 2022 first-round pick), former Atlanta guard McDonald, forward Talbot (2023 free agent signee) and center Yueru (acquired via trade with Chicago Sky in a package deal for the No. 8 pick in the draft).

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