Nneka Ogwumike scores 23 as reigning champion Sparks beat Storm in season opener
Sparks start title defense with win
LOS ANGELES -- Nneka Ogwumike doesn't know what the ring looks like. It will be a pleasant surprise to see it and then to touch it and put it on. It will be a tangible reminder of that wonderful night last October when the Sparks won the WNBA championship.
She'll have to wait a little longer to get that cherished piece of jewelry, though. With three members of the Sparks -- Candace Parker, Jantel Lavender and Essence Carson -- still playing in the Turkish league finals, Saturday's season opener wasn't the right time for ring distribution. Instead, the Sparks' ring ceremony will be May 19, which will work well, as Kristi Toliver -- part of last year's title team and now with the Mystics -- will be in town. Hopefully, all the Sparks players will be back by then.
But on Saturday at Staples Center, the Sparks did unveil a new championship banner to go with the two the franchise won in 2001 and '02. After they beat Seattle 78-68, the Sparks talked about what it's going to take to add trophy No. 4.
"The culture we're trying to cultivate this year is to bring the new people on board," Ogwumike said, "and also try help everyone who was on the team get to a place of even greater leadership and phenomenal play."
Ogwumike, last season's MVP, started well Saturday, with 23 points, three rebounds and three assists. One of the newcomers she referenced, guard Odyssey Sims, had 20 points and six assists in her Sparks debut.
Sims, out of Baylor, was the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft behind Ogwumike's sister, Chiney. In three seasons with the Shock/Wings franchise, Sims averaged 15.5 points and 4.0 assists. In February, the Wings traded her and the No. 11 pick in the 2017 draft to the Sparks for the Nos. 4 and 23 selections.
Dallas ended up with South Carolina's Allisha Gray and Kansas State's Breanna Lewis with those picks. Los Angeles drafted Oregon State's Sydney Wiese. Like most trades, it will take some time to fully evaluate this one, but it seems like it could work out just fine for the Sparks.
"I was really excited," Sims said of her hearing about the trade. "I'm so happy to be here in California and be on this team. It almost feels unreal. I'm loving it.
"It's all positive here. We hold each other accountable, but there's no negativity. I feel our chemistry on and off the court is big for us."
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That team unity was critical last season, and the Sparks drew on it all the way to winning Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on the road at Minnesota.
"When we accomplished that, we were so overwhelmed by all of the emotions," Sparks guard Alana Beard said. "Now you think back on it, and you realize how special that group was. It took a lot of sacrifice from each individual, and we were all OK with it. That was the beauty of it."
Beard had six points and five steals Saturday, but the full scope of her game is always beyond numbers. She played more than 35 minutes and, as is her trademark, was hustling all over the court the entire time.
Sims said it's especially helpful to her to have someone such as Beard, an 11-season veteran, to emulate. Nothing would make coach Brian Agler happier. He made a point to praise Beard when talking to his team after the game.
"I said, 'I hope you younger players are watching Alana Beard and how hard she competes because you can learn a lot,'" Agler said. "There's no one who's got greater focus or concentration or is a better competitor than Alana Beard. And that's why she's such a big influence on the game."
Of course, Parker, Carson and Lavender would have impacted the game a lot too. Same goes for Seattle's Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, who both have knee issues and were not cleared to play Saturday.
Bird was not at the game, but Stewart was, and she reflected on the first WNBA game of her career last year at Staples Center.
"Oh, I remember what happened: We got smacked here," Stewart said of that 96-66 defeat on May 15, 2016. "So you take that as motivation."
Not that she really needed that. Stewart, who scored 23 points that day, went on to be the WNBA rookie of the year and won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team. Then she played overseas in China, though a knee injury cut her time there short.
"It's been pretty great," Stewart said of the past year since she left UConn with four NCAA titles. "Now it's about building on it and making this team better."
Jewell Loyd, Stewart's predecessor as rookie of the year, was on the court Saturday -- and wasn't pleased with her nine turnovers. Bird's absence clearly had something to do with those, but Loyd scored 25 points and is eager to see what Seattle can do with all of its pieces together.
"I feel comfortable in the system that we have," Loyd said. "The turnovers, that's terrible, but we'll try to correct that. I've worked on my 3-point shooting, finishing and reading the defense."
Ogwumike has worked on her game too. Winning the MVP award last year made her all the more determined to improve, and she said one of the areas she has focused on is her face-up shooting. She made three 3-pointers Saturday, all in the first half.
"It did feel good," she said. "With the offense, it really opens things up. Now to take it a step further, the mid-range game is something I've been working on more as well."
Ogwumike played overseas in Russia and had about 11 days off before she started with the Sparks. By WNBA standards, that's almost a "long" time between seasons. Dealing with the overseas commitments that result in late arrivals is just a fact of life in the WNBA, and it will be until the time when salaries are significantly greater.
Agler, who has coached for so long in the WNBA, doesn't worry about it. There's no point fretting over what you can't change. Instead, he tells the Sparks to focus only on who is here, and that's what they did Saturday.
They'll be very happy to see Parker, Carson and Lavender back. But all things considered, it was a good start to the Sparks' follow-up journey after their championship season. Ogwumike said that at times, she'll remember the shot she made to win the title, and it will seem like, "Did that really happen?"
"But it did, and it still feels amazing," she said. "Now we just want to build off that."