Three thoughts: From the Sparks returning to full strength to a needed MVP conversation

The Los Angeles Sparks have won 11 of their last 13 games and look to finish the season on a good note.

Los Angeles Sparks have won eight straight games at home as they hold a 9-2 home record this season. (Photo by Los Angeles Sparks via Twitter)

The Sparks extended their current winning streak to five games with an 84-81 win over the Chicago Sky. The Sparks held off the Sky after completing a comeback a 16-point deficit in the second quarter on Sunday afternoon.

It took a late fourth-quarter takeover by Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike to close out the win against the Sky. Even with Gray and Ogwumike’s performances late in the game, the Sparks had to dig deep to overcome the deficit in the second quarter then get over the hump in the second half. The Sparks had to play by a committee and lean on one another in the win.

Playing by a committee and trusting one another’s abilities has been something that the Sparks have been heavily leaning on this season with an abundance of injuries that have kept players in and out of lineups.

Just a month ago, the Sparks were playing with 7-8 players with Parker, Alana Beard, Alexis Jones, Maria Vadeeva, and Riquna Williams all out. Despite all of those injuries and the Williams’ suspension, the Sparks went on to have a good showing in July with a 5-2 record.

After the All-Star break, the Sparks have some better health on their side with Parker, Jones, and Vadeeva playing and acclimating with their teammates.

Bringing all three players back into the fold took some time leading up to that game, but each of them showed up and provided what was needed for the Sparks.

“You can feel the energy with the people who are returning,” Sydney Wiese said about having her teammates healthy and back competing with the team.

As the Sparks have players returning, head coach Derek Fisher will have to figure out a solid rotation that the team will roll with heading into the postseason.

The Sparks are currently third in the league behind the Connecticut Sun while being 1.5 games back from the Washington Mystics.

Here are three thoughts about the Sparks that you should know heading into this last stretch of the season.

Young players getting experience

When the team was dealing with their injuries, not only did Ogwumike and Gray lead the team to stay afloat, but the young players looked to learn and take advantage of their playing time.

Wiese, drafted by the Sparks in 2017, started 11 games this season in comparison to zero from last season. With injuries to key players, Wiese is averaging just under 20 minutes a game and has improved in scoring and assists at a high rate that brings value to the Sparks.

Wiese is averaging 4.6 points on 36.8 percent shooting from the field, 1.3 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. She recorded a career-high six assists on July 20th against the New York Liberty.

Wiese’s role has expanded this season as she has risen to the opportunity to just contribute in any way that she can. Playing in Israel during the off-season has prepared Wiese in gaining confidence and growing more as a player.

“She made a commitment to training really, really, really hard,” said Fisher about Wiese’s dedication to getting better.

“And so the consistency in her performance in the games is just a byproduct of how she’s trained herself daily.”

Kalani Brown and Marina Mabrey are just a few months removed from ending their collegiate careers with Baylor and Notre Dame, respectively, and have learned a lot this season while maintaining a level of confidence in playing with veterans like Parker and the Ogwumike sisters.

Both Brown and Mabrey have been very effective for the Sparks this season. Brown and Mabrey rank in the top ten of all rookies in points, 5.3 and 4.4, respectively. They bring the energy for the Sparks whether it is behind the arc with Mabrey, in the paint with Brown, or on the defensive end overall.

Brown is part of a frontcourt that gives the Sparks an added piece for various lineup combinations. When watching Brown play earlier in the season, she was overthinking a lot and it affected how she performed.

As time has gone on, Brown has become more comfortable and willing to take the challenge of going against opposing frontcourt players. Brown’s willingness to be physical is something that works in favor of the Sparks.

Brown did not play in these last two games against the Sky and Mercury due to having Parker and Vadeeva back. It was not in the cards for Brown to play in those games with both back, but when her number is called, Brown will be ready to contribute.

“I feel for Kalani, who has been really good for us at times this season,” Fisher said about Brown’s DNPs.

“Just not as much opportunity at the moment.”

Mabrey brings a source of energy and a bucket when it is needed for the Sparks. Her recent performances against the Storm and Sky were just that. Mabrey’s personal seven-point run extended the lead for the Sparks in the fourth quarter. Against the Sky, Mabrey had just three points, but her defensive pressure is what kept her on the floor in crunch time.

Mabrey’s minutes have teetered back and forth in the past couple of games, but taking advantage of her time on the floor is something that she continues to build as her teammates have confidence in her to shoot the ball and be aggressive on the defensive end.

For both Brown and Mabrey, there have been moments when they are needed. Right now, Mabrey is a player to come in as an energy boost and Brown is on the bench. Despite the ups and downs, they have one another to lean on.

“Going through those ups and downs together kind of helps us to understand each other better,” said Mabrey about building camaraderie with Brown throughout the season.

Wiese puts things into perspective for Mabrey and Brown with her own experiences that she has faced and has been a relatable teammate for them this season.

Nneka Ogwumike’s case for MVP

With players like Elena Delle Donne and Jonquel Jones leading the conversation for this year’s Most Valuable Player award, Nneka Ogwumike is steadily making a case for herself.

Ogwumike received player of the month honors for her play in July. She has led the team in the absence of the various injured players for the majority of July. Her production helped the Sparks in their continued success throughout the month, even when they had 7-8 players.

It was announced today that Ogwumike won Player of the Week honors for the second time this season, the other coming the week of July 14th. For the week, Ogwumike averaged 20.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

Ogwumike is averaging 16.9 points on 49.2 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. The six-time All-Star’s 9.5 rebounds currently rank second in the league. She has recorded 11 double-doubles this season, which ranks in the top three of the league.

Ogwumike’s game this season extends beyond the arc. She has a 39.7 percent average of three-pointers that gives the Sparks an added dimension to the frontcourt. On July 7th, Ogwumike hit a career-high five 3-pointers to help the Sparks defeat the Washington Mystics.

On the defensive end, Ogwumike has been able to be involved in the switches and pick and roll with her ability to guard any position. Her defensive performances aren’t shown in the box score but they are felt night in and out.

Her play for the Sparks elevated the team amidst the adversity they went through. Her production, along with its effect on the team, is something worthy of consideration in the race for the award.

“Whether she wins it or not, she’s been our most valuable and most consistent player all season long,” said Fisher about the 2016 recipient of the award in this year’s conversation.

Assessment of Derek Fisher’s first year

From travel woes to managing a team that has a mix of young players and proven vets, Derek Fisher has had to adjust and grow in his first year coaching in the WNBA.

“I’ve learned a lot. I come into everyday open-minded and ready to learn,” the first-year head coach said.

Fisher expanded on this saying that this experience has enhanced his understanding of how important it is to listen. Listening to his players needs allows him to figure out what is needed from him for the success of his players and team as a whole.

“It’s been a lot of fun and challenging,” Fisher said.

With the Sparks being on the road for the majority of the first half of the season, it seemed that it was hard to create some consistency or even a true foundation to build on. Despite that, the Sparks managed to maintain a dominant 6-2 home record and be .500 on the road this season.

Fisher had a first-hand experience with the travel woes that the players in the league go through earlier this season after their game against the Minnesota Lynx. Fisher called attention to a reality that many teams in the league face, transportation.

It was also a bit of a struggle for Fisher to create a foundation for the team early in the season with the team starting out on the road, but he has been able to build that with players back and being back in Los Angeles for a portion of this second half.

In managing his players from the veterans to the young players, Fisher has to balance out their needs from him. It’s been a challenge for Fisher to configure the veterans’ workload while also teaching the young players. Though the veterans may not need to hear things from Fisher multiple times, the young players need to hear them a lot to fully grasp what they need to do.

With a mix match of veterans and young players, Fisher said it was a good thing.

“For me, it’s just kept it all fun and I think this job is important to have fun doing it,” said Fisher.

This season has thrown the Sparks many obstacles, but they have stayed the course with Fisher keeping the team together, along with the veterans instilling confidence in one another and the young players on and off the court.

The Sparks have had a good start coming off the All-Star break and hope to bring this momentum with them on their two-game road trip this week and the rest of the season. If the Sparks continue this momentum, they will be a formidable foe for opponents heading into the post-season.

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