Surprise! Sparks Get NnekaApril 16, 2012
LOS ANGELES, Calif – Breaking news it is not. Everyone in the world of women’s basketball knew almost the moment the Los Angeles Sparks won the first pick in the 2012 draft lottery that they would use it to select Stanford’s phenomenal forward, Nnemkadi ‘Nneka’ Ogwumike.
The Sparks made good on their luck of the draw and came away with a double-happiness of sort in knowing that getting the only sure thing in this year’s very weak WNBA Draft left only question marks preceded by the word ‘sleeper’ for the 11 other teams in the league to choose from.
SportsPageMagazine.com had the opportunity to ask questions of the Sparks brass, GM Penny Toler and head coach Carol Ross; their newest jewel Nneka Ogwumike; and a couple of ultra-loyal and knowledgeable fans gathered at the ESPN Zone at LA Live across from the Staples Center where, in a little over a month, a radically different Sparks team than the one we’ve seen the past three years will take the basketball court for the first time.
Sparks first round pick, Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
SPM: Have you thought about how complimentary you can or will be playing with someone like Candace Parker?
NO: I’m thinking about it now. (laughs) It’s always been a dream for me and now it can be a reality. I look forward to playing with someone who, oh my gosh, people stop when you hear her name. It’s going to be amazing. She obviously has a lot to offer younger players and I hope she has lots of wise words for me, too.
SPM: Were you paying attention to it and, if so, how did you feel about the hiring of Carol Ross as head coach of the Sparks?
NO: I feel great! Obviously I looked her up but I know she was at Ole Miss previously. I’ve heard she’s real great on defense and I look forward to playing for her.
SPM: What part of your game do you take the most pride in?
NO: I think I take the most pride in finishing. I try my best to finish as many baskets as I can with certainty. And whether there is contact or the game is physical or too quick, I still try my very best to finish the ball.
SPM: What part of your game would you like to see develop as you transition into being a solid pro?
NO: Two things: my ball handling and my guard defense, my defending face-up players. On-ball defense.
Sparks General Manager, Penny Toler.
SPM: When the season ended like it did last year, how confident were you that you would be able to make the kind of wholesale changes that you were able to accomplish this off-season?
PT: I don’t want to sound conceited but I was very confident. The thing that everybody knows about me is that I’m honest, so I’m going to be brutally honest about the product that was on the floor. On paper we should have been really good but obviously the chemistry was bad. Once you see that the chemistry is bad, you can either be in denial or you can go do something about it to change it.
My thoughts were we definitely don’t want to go through another year like last season, so let’s face some of these situations head on and let’s try to go get some different players, some younger players, and fill in those voids but also change things in a way that these parts that you change for can stay in place for a while so that you’re not just changing for this year but for years to come.
SPM: Coach Joe Bryant, Tina Thompson, Ticha Penicheiro, Noelle Quinn. So many key people gone. Was that hard for you personally or did it feel really good in this case because you knew you were going to improve your team?
PT: It wasn’t hard. I learned very early in my career, when I had to trade my best friend, Ukari Figgs, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Jerry West once told me – that’s the first person they had me to talk to when I sat down in this seat – don’t fall in love with the players because you’re going to have to trade them away. Don’t fall in love with the coaches because my eyes are always supposed to remain objective.
Tina and those guys, they were free to do whatever they wanted to do. When I first sat down in this seat, the first thing I said when asked what I wanted was that I want players who WANT to be in Sparks uniforms. So I wasn’t going to core anyone. If you want to leave, leave. I’m confident that I can put somebody in your spot.
SPM: This draft, could you every have imagined a more perfect storm? You guys get this top draft pick, land this cream of the crop player, an almost sure WNBA All Star, and everyone else gets question marks. Or is that a myth? Are there a lot of potential sleepers out there?
PT: I think there are some good players that were in the draft and obviously I’m sure they are hoping that they got with the right team. But when anyone would ask me what I thought of the draft… I just said… well… we have the number one pick… so for ME, it’s great! I do think there are some players who will play, but I’m not going to lie to you, it’s great to have the number one pick this year to bring in a player such as Nneka. With DeLisha still here she can learn from DeLisha, but it’s almost like a carbon copy except Nneka will be able to knock down that three consistently.
SPM: In deciding what players to go after, how much interaction is there between you and Coach Ross?
PT: Oh there’s a lot. Because see the luxury that Coach Ross has that Jennifer (former Sparks head coach Jennifer Gillom) didn’t have – because I do believe that Jennifer will be a good coach in this league – is that we were kind of stuck with some contracts. Now with contracts running out I probably could have signed some players.
But now I know that Coach Ross wants [the Sparks] to be a running team, let me go get those types of players who are going to play well in her system. So I mapped it out for her and she has a say in it because, as I would say to her, you still have to be the one to coach them.
I wanted to go out and get combo players, players who could play multiple positions. That’s her style, she likes that. Running players and defensive players. So if we’re having a bad night offensively, our defense should be able to make up for that. So of course. The coach always has a say in it. I really don’t rule with an iron fist because I want them to be comfortable with who they’re coaching too.
Sparks Head Coach, Carol Ross
SPM: How happy are you with the personnel changes this team has made in the offseason, the decision to go so much younger? We talked at your hiring conference call and you said you didn’t think age was necessarily a hindrance to a player’s success but wow… it sure looks like there’s been a move here made towards youth.
CR: I think Penny Toler has done a terrific job of moving some pieces around and restructuring this team in a way that you’ve got the beauty of youthful enthusiasm but you’ve still got the wisdom that comes with some of the more veteran players. So that’s the beauty of putting it all together and certainly she brings the pieces and then it’s my job to mold those individual pieces into a team of one.
SPM: Were any of these veteran players you’ve acquired, Nikki Anosike, Alana Beard, were any of them players that you maybe coveted or were on your long-time wish list before you even became the head coach of this team?
CR: Obviously we’re very familiar, especially in the east, with Anosike, who I’ve also coached with the USA team. Alana Beard, who I’ve always admired from a distance. Marisa Coleman. Just those types of players that if you ever get a chance to coach some of these players, you’re fortunate. Sometimes just a change of venue, a change of philosophy, any little change can spark a second chance or them finding something in themselves that they didn’t know they had.
I’m looking forward to all of that because I like pushing the buttons. I like to try to find a player’s best plays to help them be the best that they can be at whatever it is that we need them to be. As far as wishing for certain players, I’m happy with every player that Penny has put on the table. We really work well together, we’ve communicated a lot and she wants to bring players that I want to coach.
And I want to coach, and it’s not necessarily names, but I want to coach players who love to play the game… players that are not cynical and who have not gotten so frustrated as yet by some of the curveballs that might be thrown in a career. I want people to remember that this is a game and we’re supposed to have fun and when you’re having fun, typically that means you’re winning.
SPM: Have you had a chance to work with Nneka in any way at all?
CR: No, but I had a chance to watch her in high school. I’ve seen her often wearing a Stanford uniform. She’s represented USA Basketball as well. She just plays the game, again, like a player who I would love to coach. She respects both ends of the floor. She’s going to play both ends with equal intensity and passion. She has been a great teammate. She’s unselfish. She wants to win first. So the Sparks will come first, Nneka will come second and that’s how you build great teams.
SPM: I heard someone say one time in describing how he was raised and it was something like “all for me, nothing for you.” Not only have the Sparks landed this likely WNBA All Star, but the rest of the teams in the league, at least by what can be known at this point in time, haven’t been able to get themselves any better by way of this 2012 draft.
CR: (laughing) We hope that’s the way it goes. Clearly, Nneka was the cream of the crop. She was the top pick on every board. And it’s because she has great gifts. Not just athletically, she’s also an intelligent basketball player. And then you thrown in other intangibles, like just being unselfish, playing the game with a lot of enthusiasm and passion. And she’s got leadership skills. There’s just so much in that package. She’ll have to find her own way, in some regards, but she’s clearly equipped to make an impact in a hurry.
SPM: Okay, on a personal note, I notice the drawl isn’t what it was a few months ago when you were hired. How are you adjusting to life in Los Angeles?
CR: I’m still pretty Southern. (laughing) I’ve enjoyed it, I love it. Of course the weather is phenomenal. The people have been just, I don’t know, in the south we like to think we’ve cornered the market on hospitality but LA has certainly challenged that. People have been extremely nice and helpful and I’m looking forward to my life in LA.
Diehard Sparks Fans, Delmarie Carver and Rosie Feord.
SPM: How do you guys feel about the wholesale changes this team has made since last year?
DC: I think it was probably needed.
RF: I think it’s wonderful. Starting with pick of the coach. And I think we’ve got some really professionals as far as the players that are coming in. I’m looking forward to it.
SPM: What do you know and think about Nneka.
DC: I’ve followed UCLA for the last four years and I’ve had a chance to see Nneka many many times and I’ve been amazed at the skills she added for this year. She was always good but each year she has added something to her game, and now she is a complete player who is still willing to learn more and add to her game. So I’m very excited.