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Sparks' Trade Is Talk of the Draft

Women's basketball: L.A. sends starting point guard Figgs to Portland and gets Teasley, the No. 5 overall pick, in return.

April 20, 2002|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not many teams figured to come away enriched by Friday's WNBA draft but the Sparks might have.

The defending league champions pulled off a surprising trade afterward, sending starting point guard Ukari Figgs to Portland for Nikki Teasley, the Fire's first-round pick. In the draft, the Sparks selected Oklahoma guard Rosalind Ross with the 16th and final pick of the first round. They chose Florida International guard Gergana Slavtcheva and North Carolina forward Jackie Higgins in the second round, Penn State forward Rashana Barnes in the third and Old Dominion forward Tiffany Thompson with the last pick of the fourth and final round.

As part of the trade with Portland, the Sparks gave up Slavtcheva and acquired veteran guard Sophia Witherspoon. But that wasn't the move that had people talking.

Teasley, the fifth player selected overall, averaged 14.6 points, 5.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds during her senior year at North Carolina. She is the Tar Heels' all-time assist leader, was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team selection and honorable mention All-America. She was considered by many to be the top athlete at guard in college last season.

To get her, the Sparks said goodbye to one of their most popular players, both with fans and the players. Figgs, a third-round pick from Purdue in 1999, was solid and selfless at point guard during the Sparks' title run last year. She averaged eight points and four assists, but her accurate three-point shooting--54 for 117--kept defenses from collapsing on Lisa Leslie and Latasha Byears under the basket.

Probably the toughest part, General Manager Penny Toler said, was not being able to tell Figgs, who could not be reached by telephone. "I wanted to keep Ukari," said Toler, blinking back tears. "She and Tamika [Dixon] are my best friends. This is definitely hard. But how can you pass up a 6-foot point guard?

"Teasley is a phenomenal player. She sees the floor very well and will be a huge addition to our team in a league that's getting better and better. She was the only player I really liked, in addition to the Sparks' players we already have."

Coach Michael Cooper, who said Teasley "reminds me of Magic Johnson," plans to insert the rookie into the starting lineup.

"She's played in a high-caliber program down in North Carolina, she knows what big-game pressure is about, and I feel her style of play fits our team," Cooper said. "But trading Ukari was one of the hardest things we've ever had to do as an organization. She will be sorely missed."

Both teams are taking risks.

Portland is getting an elite point guard to join Jackie Stiles, last season's rookie of the year, in the backcourt. But it's dangerous to trade within the same conference. If Teasley develops into the player Cooper and Toler believe she will, the Fire will be reminded of the deal for years to come.

Los Angeles is taking a chance on a talent who sat out the 2000-01 season because of depression and anxiety, and who must take daily medication. She now has the pressure of fitting into a defending champion at the game's most demanding position.

Teasley, who was at the WNBA draft in New Jersey, said by phone that attending the league's pre-draft camp last week might have erased some teams' doubts.

"That was one of the biggest things you can do for this day," Teasley said. "It's important for people to get to know you on a personal level, and not just as a basketball player. I figured wherever I was drafted, I would be happy. I'm very surprised to end up with the Sparks. But I'm very happy."

As expected, Seattle made Connecticut's Sue Bird the first pick. And the national champion Huskies had the biggest impact on the draft, with four players taken in the first six picks. Forward Swin Cash was selected second by Detroit, forward Asjha Jones fourth by Washington and forward Tamika Williams sixth by Minnesota.

Minnesota traded former UCLA forward Maylana Martin and former Master's College forward Erin Buescher to Charlotte for guard Shaunzinski Gortman.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

WNBA Draft

The first round of Friday's WNBA draft:

*--* 1 Seattle Sue Bird, Connecticut 2 Detroit Swin Cash, Connecticut 3 Washington Stacey Dale-Schuman, Oklahoma 4 Washington Asjha Jones, Connecticut 5 Portland Nikki Teasley, North Carolina* 6 Minnesota Tamika Williams, Connecticut 7 Charlotte Sheila Lambert, Baylor 8 Cleveland Deanna Jackson, Ala. Birmingham 9 Charlotte Shaunzinski Gortman, So. Caro.** 10 Houston Michelle Snow, Tennessee 11 Utah Danielle Crockrom, Baylor 12 Sacramento Hamchetou Maiga, Old Dominion 13 Indiana Tawana McDonald, Georgia 14 Utah LaNeishea Caulfield, Oklahoma 15 Miami Tamara Moore, Wisconsin 16 Los Angeles Rosalind Ross, Oklahoma *traded to Los Angeles along with Sophia Witherspoon for Ukari Figgs and Gergana Slavtcheva. ** traded to Minnesota for Erin Buescher and Maylana Martin Complete draft: D12

*--*

New Sparks

Nikki Teasley: The Sparks acquired the 6-foot guard from Portland for guard Ukari Figgs and the rights to second-round draft pick Gergana Slavtcheva. Teasley, from North Carolina, was Portland's first-round pick. She averaged 15.2 points and 5.7 assists a game last season.

Sophia Witherspoon: Also acquired in the trade with Portland, the 5-10 Witherspoon, 32, has averaged 13.1 points per game in a five-year career. She averaged 12.0 last season.

Rosalind Ross: The Sparks' first-round draft pick, a 5-9 guard, averaged 11.3 points per game for the national runners-up from Oklahoma.

SPARKS' OTHER DRAFT PICKS

Jackie Higgins, C-F, 6-1, North Carolina (second round, No. 32 overall)

Rashana Barnes, F, 6-1, Penn State (third, 48)

Tiffany Thompson, F, 6-3, Old Dominion (fourth, 64)

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