Intangibles will be key for Sparks down the stretch

The Sparks have so much to believe in. 

First and foremost, they have a fresh start at the very top. Following the firing of former Head Coach and General Manager Derek Fisher, they named a new coach who has many qualities that Fisher lacked. Interim Head Coach Fred Williams has extensive coaching experience at multiple levels, including coaching at USC and for other WNBA teams. He is also held in high regard by two of his most important players, Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage. While Fisher was known for letting beloved superstars go under his tenure, Williams has earned the respect that might inspire the current superstars to stay. 

Williams has the credibility and likability of a good leader. His Sparks need to believe in that. 

On the players’ side, forward Katie Lou Samuelson is playing the best season of her career. In the Sparks’ most recent win, a solid victory over the star-studded Seattle Storm, she played the entire game save for one minute and scored 17 key points. She’s averaging 10.7 points per game, easily her career best. Additionally, she is shooting the lights out— she’s averaging 46% from the 3-point range, an elite clip. 

Samuelson’s skills and numbers are impressive, but what is even more impressive is her growth into a key starter for her team. Her teammates need to believe in that, and push her even more to grow into a star. 

The Sparks also have some of the most talented defenders in the league. Ogwumike and Brittney Sykes are elite on-ball defenders and are both among the league leaders in steals per game, with Sykes leading the league at 2.2 per game. Not to be outdone, Cambage ranks third in the league in blocks per game. 

And of course, they have the W’s best defensive coach, Latricia Trammell, who has built a reputation for being the source of the Sparks’ defensive success from 2019 to 2021. Except, they don’t have much to show for it this season beyond individual numbers. The Sparks have the third worst defensive rating in the WNBA so far in 2022 and have lost six games by 10 or more points. 

With so much elite defensive talent, the Sparks should be near the top in defensive success. They need to believe in themselves and one another and start playing as a smarter, more aggressive, and especially more confident, defensive unit. 

But defense is just the start of the Sparks’ woes this season.

Cambage, who has at times been compared to Shaq, should be dominating games. However, the center isn’t scoring, and instead is spending most of her time on the bench. She needs to remind herself, her teammates and her coaches who she is. To do that, she needs to impose her will by believing she is in command of the game and acting like it. 

In contrast, rookie Olivia Nelson-Ododa is playing key minutes like a seasoned veteran despite her inexperience. The Sparks need to believe that she’s ready for more and increase her minutes per game. 

In general, the Sparks need to believe in the depth of their roster. Everyone on the roster has proved they can contribute meaningful game minutes. When a regular rotation player is struggling, the Sparks need to believe in their bench. 

This column sort of reads like a pep talk. That’s probably because when I sit on my couch watching the games, that’s what I feel they need the most. 

The Sparks have the talent. They have shown they can beat the best, as they have beaten three out of the five WNBA teams over .500 to date. They have the opportunity of a fresh start with a reputable coach, which provides an opportunity to forget about the slow start and mentally reset the season. 

It all comes down to one thing: the Sparks just need to believe. 

On some nights, the Sparks look like an elite team. On others, they look like they forgot who they are. Los Angeles sits at tenth in league standings. If the season ended today, the Sparks would miss the playoffs. However, if their dynamic group of playmakers lives up to their potential, the Sparks can climb the WNBA standings and have a shot at a title. 

My hope for the rest of the season is that they find that belief and realize who they can become if they pull it together. I want to be watching my first WNBA Finals in September, and if the Sparks are in it, you better believe I’m going to try to show up to Arena to cheer my team toward a title. 

I hope to see some of you there. 

Ethan Inman is a rising sophomore writing about how he  recently became a fan of the L.A. Sparks. His column, “The Sparks Plug,” ran every other Wednesday.