Sparks

Sparks Draft Four In Repositioning Towards Postseason

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“Winning does help.” Sparks general manager and head coach Derek Fisher debunked a popular basketball myth after Monday night’s WNBA draft. How you play the game matters. Process matters. But, according to Fisher, at some point, a college player’s success on the scoreboard holds meaning. Although Fisher observed that there are only 144 spots in the WNBA, the Sparks drafted four players who bring achievement legacies.

As LA pivots towards the postseason, Rae Burrell, Kianna Smith, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, and Amy Atwell join a surging franchise. While perhaps not all four will make the final roster, Fisher boldly chose women with college success as LA beings its 26th attempt at world championship glory.

Rae Burrell, Tennessee: First Round, Ninth Overall

When a team drafts ninth, often, they must settle for a backup choice.

Fortunately, LA achieved its desired aspiration.

“Rae Burrell is a player we’ve been scouting for several years,” according to Fisher. “Her length, versatility, and ability to play multiple positions will be valuable for us as we continue to build our roster. We’re excited to add Rae to the LA Sparks organization.”

Wow, several years? Sometimes, in a complex world, dreams do achieve reality. Burrell played four years with the Lady Vols, the last three under coach Kellie Harper’s leadership. Harper, a former player under Pat Summitt, reinstalled her late mentor’s work ethic for the Vol program.

And Burrell sparked the most immense flame.

Although primarily a reserve in her freshwoman and sophomore years, Burrell started 25 games in 2020-2021, shooting a dazzling 40% from three. Unfortunately, a knee injury limited her to 22 games in her final campaign. True, Fisher took a risk with his first selection.

But all success in life comes from gambles.

Burrell brings outside potential that could complement Katie Lou Samuelson while opening paint room for Liz Cambage. While the Vol program slipped a bit after Summitt’s departure, Tennessee is still a proud school.

Burrell exemplifies Vol determination as she joins a team also due for success.

Kianna Smith, Louisville: Second Round, 16th Overall

Smith took an elongated path to success on the court. She played two successful seasons at California before sitting out a year (due to a bogus transfer rule) and joining Louisville. Smith then hooped for two Cardinal seasons, starting all 34 games her senior season.

Smith is no paper-class jock. She graduated with a business degree before earning a prestigious Weaver-James-Corrigan Postgraduate Scholarship Award, allowing her to continue her career while studying in graduate school.

Smith brings ballhandling expertise in her return to California, leading the ACC with a 2.64 assist-to-turnover ratio. And Fisher expressed immense praise for his second selection.

“We approached this draft needing wing players as well as additional shooting,” Fisher explained. “Kianna Smith fits both those needs. She excelled on the biggest stage in the Final Four this season, and we’re happy to welcome Kianna to LA.”

While the Cardinals fell short in Minneapolis, Smith won’t falter on an even bigger stage.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Connecticut: Second Round, 19th Overall

Nelson-Ododa brings tremendous height (6’5″) and opponent-pestering length to LA. She earned Big East defensive player of the year in 2020-2021, only missing out this season due to teammate Nika Mühl’s selection.

Nelson-Ododa made tremendous improvement as a Husky. Although she often battled foul trouble (funny how referees have vendettas against specific innocent players), Nelson-Ododa perfected her footwork and became unguardable at the rim.

Count Fisher impressed by Nelson-Ododa’s accomplishments. “Olivia Nelson-Ododa was a contributor on both ends of the floor for a UConn program that went to four consecutive Final Fours in her tenure,” praised Fisher. “We’re excited to see how her size, length, rebounding, and passing ability can translate at the next level.”

Nelson-Ododa worked determinedly to develop her craft, and the Sparks recognized her passion. From four Final Fours, straight to the pros, and towards the WNBA playoffs: no opponent yet has foiled her climb up the crowded accomplishment steps.

Amy Atwell, Hawaii: Third Round, 27th Overall

It’s common for one to announce “last but not least” when concluding a list.

There’s nothing “last” about Atwell.

Atwell used her bonus COVID year to play five years with the Rainbow Wāhine (Wāhine is Hawaiian for women). She completed her undergraduate degree in business marketing and studied in graduate school while completing her fifth season. Atwell led the Big West with 17.8 points a game while becoming the first Wāhine to become Big West player of the year.

Although Atwell wasn’t quite the biggest draft name, Fisher saw a talent that others overlooked. “Amy Atwell is one of the better shooters in the 2022 class, not just in her ability to convert her attempts but in the way she can get her shot off,” Fisher praised. “Atwell coming to camp gives us another floor spacer and versatile perimeter player.”

Atwell expressed effusive praise at joining one of American sports’ best franchises.

Whoa, those are four talented women. So how did Fisher approach his challenging task?

Not An Accident

WNBA Lead asked Fisher how much NCAA tournament success impacted his decisions. Fisher gave a nuanced response, clarifying that postseason success doesn’t assure or disqualify a player. However, it undoubtedly helps.

“Leading our decision making, a lot of it is based on the players that are still available, which is tied to the decision that other teams are making,” Fisher clarified. “And so, I don’t think it’s an accident, right, that the players that play on some of the best teams in the country that we do feel confident, are accustomed to, not just playing on the big stage, but being a part of a team, being a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Fisher understands the sentiment that success fuels success; he assures the media that college winning is not the only factor in his selections.

“My hope is that we’re not allowing that to dictate our decision-making; we don’t think of it that way. But, I think for me, and what I would message to other young people as well and the players, winning does help. And that’s something that’s always been important to me, and maybe it’s why we’ve gravitated towards certain players this year or during my time here.”

Just As Deserving

Fisher didn’t equivocate: although Smith and Nelson-Ododa reached the Final Four, players not as fortunate in the big dance can still succeed.

“But I don’t want that to devalue or disregard players that don’t make it to the Final Four. They’re just as deserving and capable of playing in the league as well. It’s just that’s the way I worked out for us this year.”

Still think an ordinary Joe or Jo could do a better job than a WNBA GM? Not so, judging by Fisher’s excellent selections and thoughtful decision-making. With four new players joining an already talented roster, there’s not room for everyone on the Sparks court this season.

Furthermore, there’s only one team on the champion’s podium.

However, behind Burrell’s, Smith’s, Nelson-Ododa’s, and Atwell’s aspirations, the Sparks’ flames will soon consume an ever-increasingly talented women’s basketball world.

About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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