Acting as if they won the draft lottery, Sparks say 'we're going to shock a lot of people'


In a suite in the arena they’ll soon call home, the Sparks’ three draft picks mingled with the Showtime Lakers. Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson and McKenzie Forbes rubbed elbows with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper. The former NBA stars who were being honored at halftime of a Lakers playoff game last week shared stories of their success in a city that demands nothing less.

It was, as Brink said, the “perfect welcome to L.A.” But it was just the start.

“We came in to help make a difference,” the No. 2 overall draft pick said, “to help this team win.”

The most anticipated Sparks draft picks of the last decade take center stage as the team begins a new era. The Sparks open their season on May 15 against the Atlanta Dream at 7 p.m. at Long Beach’s Walter Pyramid.

The franchise is mired in its longest playoff drought in history, a three-season dry spell that has spanned two head coaches. On Wednesday at the team’s preseason media day, coach Curt Miller shied away from putting a timetable on when the organization will return to prominence. He is entering his second season at the helm, but after losing veteran players including longtime franchise pillar Nneka Ogwumike, Miller said it feels as if the Sparks are back at square one.

The build is still very much in its early stages, but with potential stars at the forefront, the big plans remain intact.

“It does take a process,” Miller said, “and what a foundation we get to start working with with two lottery picks.”

Less than a week into training camp, Brink, the Sparks’ highest draft pick since Ogwumike went first overall in 2012, already has impressed coaches with her elite shot-blocking ability. Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick out of Tennessee, flashed her versatility and ability to play both forward positions. Third-round pick Forbes, one month after helping USC to its best season in nearly 30 years, is “beyond her years with basketball knowledge,” Miller said.

But everyone’s head is spinning, Miller emphasized. The team has 17 healthy players in training camp after waiving forward Virag Kiss on Tuesday, and 10 are new to the team. Establishing team chemistry is almost as important as picking up new concepts and terminology.

The rookies already are excelling at both. After Brink finished her news conference Wednesday, the Naismith defensive player of the year skipped away from the table into the arms of center Li Yueru, who wrapped the rookie up in a hug and lifted her off the ground. The 6-foot-4 former Stanford star has “a unique way of making people smile,” Miller said.

Tennessee's Rickea Jackson (right) hugs WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the  Sparks.

Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson (right) hugs WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being selected fourth overall by the Sparks in the draft.

(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

While antagonism between rookies and veterans fighting for coveted roster spots has been a discussion on social media, veteran guard Lexie Brown denied any bad blood in the league. The 29-year-old recalled her “horrible” rookie experience with the Connecticut Sun in 2018 and vowed to never make a young player feel the way she did.

“We’re so excited to have Cam and Rickea here and Kenzie,” Brown said. “They’ve been incredible. We want to make them feel as welcomed as possible.”

Brink expressed gratitude for forward Dearica Hamby’s advice and said the former two-time WNBA sixth player of the year has been “very much like a mother to me.” Jackson said former UCLA star Monique Billings, who joined the Sparks this offseason as a free agent from the Atlanta Dream, has been the veteran who has most taken her under their wing, along with Hamby and guard Layshia Clarendon.

“It’s really just helping them stay grounded in who they are,” said Clarendon, who is entering her 12th year as a pro, “teaching them to be the players that they want to be on the court and not getting caught in the noise.”

The league’s latest rookies enter under a massive spotlight. Last month’s draft, when former Iowa star Caitlin Clark went first overall to the Indiana Fever, was the most-watched WNBA draft, reaching 2.45 million viewers.

Interest in the league is spiking as several teams have announced season ticket sellouts or have moved certain games to larger venues to accommodate ticket demand. The Sparks, who are unable to start the season at Crypto.com Arena during the final stages of renovation, will play their first five home games at the Pyramid, including a game against the Fever on May 24 that is sold out.

Without a superstar for the first time in franchise history, the Sparks are in need of a jolt. They finished 17-23, ninth in the WNBA. Turning the roster over again could make some overlook the young group, Brown said, but those in the gym are looking forward to the youth movement.

“I think,” Hamby said, “we’re going to shock a lot of people.”



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