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It's a Whole New Start for Sparks

With an overhauled roster and their third coaching staff in two years, they aren't sure what to expect as they open the season tonight.

May 21, 2006|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

It has been a long time since the Sparks, who tip off the 2006 season tonight in Seattle, began a WNBA season with so much unknown about themselves or how the season might play out.

They start with their third coaching staff in two years. Joe Bryant, who replaced Henry Bibby with five games left last year, begins his first full season as coach. He is joined on the bench by assistants Michael Abraham and Margaret Mohr.

And the rebuilding of the roster that began in 2005 continues in 2006.

* There are four rookies -- first-round draft pick Lisa Willis from UCLA, free agent Brandi Davis from Oregon and European imports Dalivorka Vilipic of Serbia and Montenegro and Emmeline Ndongue of France. Vilipic begins the year on the team's inactive roster.

* There was another big off-season trade, with veteran point guard Nikki Teasley going to Washington for point guard Temeka Johnson -- the 2005 rookie of the year -- and veteran forward Murriel Page. Another key departure was longtime fan favorite Tamecka Dixon, who signed a free-agent contract with Houston.

* All in all, there are seven players on the Sparks' opening-day roster that were not with the team last year.

No wonder perennial All-Star center Lisa Leslie, who joins Mwadi Mabika as the only remaining players from the Sparks' 2002 championship team, looked momentarily stumped when asked of her expectations for this season.

"I'm not sure what we're capable of yet, to be honest," Leslie said. "Because when you have new coaches, a new style, a new system, everything is different."

Bryant said he is not that worried about the offense, even though the Sparks averaged only 68.4 points per game in 2005, the first time they averaged less than 70.

If the leg and ankle injuries suffered by Mabika and Christi Thomas are healed, Bryant figures he has other scorers alongside Leslie and Chamique Holdsclaw. He has simplified the complex offense favored by Bibby, and is counting on Johnson to keep the tempo fast.

It's the defense that concerns Bryant, especially with the Sparks playing their first six games on the road.

"The biggest challenge for us is having so many road games [to start]," Bryant said. "Sure, offensively, we know we can score 80-90 points. But it's important we get some stops. So the first six games on the road we have to focus on getting stops.

"The [starting and reserve] units could change just looking at the defensive part of it. Then as we come home, we'll probably try to turn out more of an offensive unit to attack. But the first six games we're going to get some stops."

The players said they are more relaxed going into the season than they were at this time last year.

Thomas said training camp was "somewhat similar to [former coach Michael Cooper], as far as focusing on defense. And just having fun playing basketball, because it is a game.

"It's a lot different than last year. Last year, it was a little more uptight, a little more ... like drill sergeant-type situations. Every coach has a different style, and last year was more like a college thing than it has been."

*

TONIGHT

at Seattle, 6, NBA TV

* Site -- KeyArena.

* Radio -- 1150 AM.

* Records -- Sparks 0-0; Storm 0-0.

* Record vs. Storm (2005) -- 2-2.

* Update -- Seattle set a franchise record last year with its 14-3 home record. One of those losses was to the Sparks, which ruined the Storm's season opener (and ring ceremony for winning the 2004 championship). In that game, the Storm set season lows for points (50) and field goals made (18). The Sparks won only five more road games, however, and went on to post their worst road record since 1998 (4-11). The Sparks will be without Holdsclaw, their leading scorer last season, who is handling a family matter. Seattle center Simone Edwards, the last of the original Storm players, announced her retirement Friday after six seasons.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sparks roster

*--* No. Player. Pos. Hgt. Age Yrs. 21 Brandi Davis G 6-0 23 R 10 Doneeka Hodges G 5-9 23 2 1 Chamique Holdsclaw F 6-2 28 7 2 Temeka Johnson G 5-3 23 1 9 Lisa Leslie C 6-5 33 9 4 Mwadi Mabika F 5-11 29 9 31 Jessica Moore C 6-3 23 1 15 Tamara Moore G 5-10 26 4 14 Emmeline Ndongue C 6-2 23 R 00 Murriel Page C 6-2 30 8 32 Christi Thomas F 6-3 23 2 Dalivorka Vilipic F-C 6-4 31 R 40 Lisa Willis G 5-11 21 R

*--*

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