LOS ANGELES — This is all so very new to Kalani Brown, and yet there’s something so familiar about it.
“I’ve stepped out of one championship mentality … into another,” said the 6-foot-7 rookie center, whom the L.A. Sparks drafted seventh in April’s WNBA Draft just days after her Baylor Bears defeated Notre Dame for the NCAA women’s basketball title.
“I think we have the ability to win a WNBA championship, I do believe that. We have depth at every position, we’ve got the experience – and then you’ve got the newbies like me. And I definitely think we have that championship mentality.”
Brown recognizes that the Sparks, whose last WNBA title came in 2016, are serious about their quest for the franchise’s fourth championship, a pursuit that begins Sunday in Las Vegas, with a tall season-opening test against Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson and the rest of the talent-rich Aces.
Many consider Las Vegas the front-runner entering a season that’s launched with more than half of last year’s 10 All-WNBA selections sidelined because of injury, maternity leave or, in Maya Moore’s case, a break to pursue her ministry dreams. The Sparks’ Candace Parker – a two-time MVP and All-WNBA second-teamer in 2018 – is expected to be sidelined for at least another couple weeks with an injured hamstring.
For all the unknowns their absences create on the court, there will be intrigue off it too, because there’s more at stake for the WNBA’s players than a ring.
With the league’s current collective bargaining agreement expiring on Halloween, players will seek WNBA revenue commensurate with the share of revenue NBA players make (about 50 percent), improved working conditions and more transparency from the league, they’ve said.
As the president of the players union, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike will be at the forefront of those negotiations, flanked by an executive committee that includes younger sister and new Spark teammate Chiney Ogwumike.
That will be part of “Nneka’s job,” as first-year Sparks Coach Derek Fisher put it. The other piece, of course, will be helping lead the Sparks in their hunt for that championship.
Led by the 6-2 Nneka Ogwumike and the 6-4 Parker, the Sparks’ frontcourt is stocked with talent: They’ve added Brown – Sparks GM Penny Toler was “amazed” Brown was available to be selected seventh in the draft — as well as the 6-4 Chiney Ogwumike, a two-time All-Star and a prolific rebounder.
They also bring back 6-4 Maria Vadeeva, the 20-year-old who spent her “offseason” collecting Euroleague and Russian League titles alongside WNBA stars Brittney Griner and Kayla McBride on the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg.
“We have the ability to go big, but we’re really versatile, with Nneka, Candace and Chiney in the front court as well,” Fisher said during training camp. “So we’ll be able to do what’s best for the matchup, and that’s the great part about the women on this roster.”
The Sparks would love for point guard Chelsea Gray, 26, to continue her ascent. Twice an All-Star, Gray has improved each of her four WNBA seasons, setting career marks for points (14.9), assists (5.1), rebounds (3.4) and steals (1.4) last year.
The Sparks are counting on her to continue that trend, especially after trading scoring threat Odyssey Sims to Minnesota for Alexis Jones and losing dynamic wing Essence Carson to Phoenix in free agency.
They’ll also lean on the lock-down defense of Alana Beard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and newcomer Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who’s become a willing protege since arriving in L.A. at the start of camp: “I thought I knew a lot about defense coming in,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But all the little things she’s been giving me … it’s only going to help me grow and be better.”
Fisher’s hiring late last year was announced via Woj Bomb, in a tweet by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
As Fisher embarked on his second head coaching stint (following a 40-96 record in two seasons with the New York Knicks), the former Lakers point guard stressed he wasn’t approaching his new position as a stepping stone to return to coaching men.
Better for his NBA coaching experience, he’s stressed communication and collaboration in training camp, pleasantly surprising Sparks players – not with his coaching acumen or his free-flowing offensive ideas or defensive focus, but with his reserved style.
“I think Derek is kind of the missing piece to rebuilding the team after experiencing a lot of changes,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “There’s been a lot of deprogramming. He’s very much a players’ coach and that’s something I haven’t really experienced in my career. He approaches what we learn in practice from more of a human perspective, not just a basketball player’s perspective, and I think that really is what will set us apart, not just from other teams, but this particular L.A. team.”
Happy Opening Weekend! 🏀
It’s a battle in the East and West Coast all weekend on @Twitter 💻 #WNBA
Saturday ➡️ @WashMystics vs. @ConnecticutSun, 7:30PM ETSunday ➡️ @LA_Sparks vs. @LVAces, 8PM ET pic.twitter.com/8JFjsp0Nuc
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 24, 2019
SPARKS AT A GLANCE
Last season: 19-15, lost to the Washington Mystics in the second-round of the playoffs.
Key additions: Chiney Ogwumike, F/C, 6-4; Kalani Brown, C, 6-7; Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, G/F, 5-11; Marina Mabrey; G, 5-11.
Key returners: Candace Parker, F/C, 6-4; Nneka Ogwumike, F, 6-2; Chelsea Gray, G, 5-11; Alana Beard, G/F, 5-11.
Games to watch: Sunday at Las Vegas, 5 p.m. (Twitter); May 31 vs. Connecticut (ESPN3, Spectrum SportsNet); June 8 at Minnesota (ABC); June 18 vs. Washington (CBS Sports Network, Spectrum SportsNet); June 21 at Seattle (CBS Sports Network, Spectrum SportsNet).
At home: The Sparks averaged a WNBA-best 10,642 fans per game last season at Staples Center.