Although she will not be on the court, Chiney Ogwumike has not forgotten the Sparks’ goal.
“I fully believe this team will win a championship this year,” the two-time All-Star wrote in a statement Friday announcing her decision to opt out of the season ahead of the WNBA’s coronavirus-shortened schedule that begins next month.
Cashing in on that prediction will be harder than previously thought for a franchise that assembled what some called a “super team” during free agency. The group lost some punch when Ogwumike and guard Kristi Toliver opted out. In turn, the Sparks signed former New York Liberty forward Reshanda Gray and rookie point guard Te’a Cooper ahead of training camp, which begins next month in Bradenton, Fla.
Ogwumike cited shortened preparation time and a history of knee and Achilles injuries while Toliver, who signed in free agency, was concerned with the pandemic and increasing case numbers.
While Gray, a sixth-year pro who spent two of the last three seasons playing overseas, was signed to replace Ogwumike, the roster movement magnifies the importance for young post players, including Kristine Anigwe and Marie Gulich, to emerge.
Gray is a capable and energetic rebounder and defender, but there are questions concerning her offense. Anigwe averaged 22.5 points and 16.2 rebounds as a senior at California but had a quiet rookie season in which she averaged 2.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in just 9.3 minutes.
Anigwe‘s addition also helped overcome the loss of Russian forward Maria Vadeeva, who will remain overseas this summer. Anigwe is playing for her third WNBA team in two years. In May, the former No. 9 draft pick spoke about the difficulty for a young player to break into a league with just 144 roster spots, saying, “This is the best league in the world. … As you see, people get cut daily.”
One of the people cut was Cooper, a Phoenix Mercury second-round pick who was waived when teams trimmed their rosters to fit the salary cap. The 5-foot-8 point guard who averaged 13.6 points and 4.6 assists as a grad transfer at Baylor last year hadn’t been given a chance to compete at an in-person training camp, but will get a shot with the Sparks.
“Coop will do whatever is asked of her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said in an email. “She can handle the ball well, be a distributor and can be a scorer if needed.”
The Sparks signed the 33-year-old Toliver for ball-handling alongside point guard Chelsea Gray. Cooper still can assist in that role, although Toliver — who won a championship with the Washington Mystics last year and played with Gray, Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker during the Sparks’ 2016 championship run — is irreplaceable in terms of experience, ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. Cooper, 23, must rely on other aspects of her game as she gets acquainted with the league.
“What Te’a brings is the youthfulness and energy and a quickness and athleticism to the back court,” Robinson said.
Losing Toliver makes Seimone Augustus’ signing that much more important, Robinson added, as the four-time WNBA champion’s leadership will come into focus.
As Augustus approaches the twilight of her illustrious career — she had planned to retire after this season, but kept her options open when discussing her future in April — she said she wants to “go out with a bang.”
The Sparks might be poised to help Augustus do just that as title front-runners, but that path is less clear.