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Brittney Sykes Is the WNBA’s Defensive Spark Plug

Along with Amanda Zahui B. and Erica Wheeler, she drives L.A.’s stout defense.
Brittney Sykes guarding a player on defense

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

Sparks guard Brittney Sykes is goal-oriented, to say the least.

So before games this season, assistant coach Latricia Trammell gives her a list of realistic defensive challenges to accomplish, ranging from how many steals she needs to record to how many rebounds she’s tasked with hauling in. It helps to explain why during contests Sykes will often look over at Trammell and say, “That’s one, that’s two,” or why when Sykes returns to the bench she’ll ask Trammell about what she still has to accomplish to meet those marks.

Trammell, who is regarded around the WNBA as one of the league’s top defensive tacticians, also uses keywords to bring the best out of Sykes. For instance, the Los Angeles assistant will at times call out “slim pickings”—a reference to Sykes’s “Slim” nickname—to alert the pesky defender that she’s missing out on opportunities for steals and needs to adjust her positioning.

“She’s locked in,” Trammell says. “She loves the defensive end, and that’s what she bases her offense on.”

Now in her fifth season, Sykes, 27, is emerging as one of the most disruptive forces in the league. She’ll guard players full-court when called upon and has no problem, despite being just 5' 9", battling some of the league’s strongest forwards down low. With her on the floor, Los Angeles allows 21.6 fewer points per 100 possessions than with her off it. Among other statistical markers, she is currently No. 6 in defensive rating in the league, among players who play at least 20 minutes per game.

“It’s become fun to do, to see the stress on another team’s face because we’re locking them up,” she says. “You force turnovers. That s--- is fun.”

Sykes is the engine that drives Los Angeles’s defense, which, despite a number of significant injuries, is among the league’s best. Entering Wednesday night’s matchup against the Aces, the Sparks gave up the third-fewest points per game (79.4) and were No. 1 in categories including fast-break points allowed (5.6) and points in the paint surrendered per game (29.3). They were also second in steals per game, with 8.6 per contest.

“We take pride in protecting our side of the floor, and just pride in each other,” Sykes says. “The energy that you feel [when you’re playing with us] is you better play some damn defense.”

Sykes is open about her desire to take home Defensive Player of the Year, but ask her about her candidacy and she makes sure to add, “If I’m the best defender in the league, it means my team is the best defensive team in the league.”

And thus far, she is far from the only Los Angeles player who has emerged as a key contributor on the defensive end.

Sykes formed an instant defensive connection with major free-agent acquisition Erica Wheeler, as Los Angeles entered Wednesday’s 99–75 loss allowing just 87 points per 100 possessions when the duo is on the floor together. When Sykes is paired with center Amanda Zahui B., who, like Wheeler, is in her first year with Los Angeles, the team’s defense is similarly productive.

Zahui B. has been in the WNBA since 2015, but says that Trammell is the first coach who told her she is “great on defense.”

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 10. I never heard it until before I got here,” Zahui B. says.

Explains Trammell: “I always believe that everyone has that Defensive Player of the Year in them. Someone’s just gotta bring it out of them.”

General manager and head coach Derek Fisher says that Zahui B. communicates well as the anchor in the middle of Los Angeles’s defense, adding that her size and length helps opposing players “at least think about [their shot attempts] when she’s around the basket.” Zahui B., who is averaging a career-high 26.3 per game, is also important for the Sparks’ ability to finish possessions on the glass and for jump-starting their transition attack, Fisher says.

Through 15 games this season, Los Angeles (6–9) finds itself in the middle of the playoff picture. But having spent most of the season thus far without Chiney (right knee soreness) and Nneka Ogwumike (left knee sprain), who Fisher said Tuesday are both “week-to-week” and progressing in their rehabs—there’s certainly reason for optimism about how the year will finish out.

In addition to career years from Sykes, Zahui B. and Wheeler, a number of other players have seen upticks in their production, including 24-year-old guard Te’a Cooper, who is averaging a career-high 10.6 points per game and has carved out a steady rotation role. The same can be said for 26-year-old wing Nia Coffey, who, now on her fifth team in as many seasons, is averaging career-highs in points (7.9), rebounds (4.1) and field goal percentage (41.9).

To close the first half of the regular season, Los Angeles faces off against Las Vegas again and plays two games next week against the Storm—one on the road and one at home. The Sparks then square off with the Lynx, led by star center Sylvia Fowles, on July 11. While these are certainly difficult tests for the Sparks’ defense, they’re also ones that the team looks forward to.

“All of us want to be great, and be great for each other,” Zahui B. says.

Notes from around the WNBA:

On Wednesday, the Sparks announced that they signed forward Lauren Cox for the remainder of the season. Cox, who was the No. 3 selection in the 2020 WNBA draft, was waived Sunday after fewer than two full seasons with the Fever.

The move is low-risk, high-reward for the Sparks. Cox helped Baylor claim the 2019 national championship and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year and a first-team All-America in her senior season. Coming out of college, she was touted for her versatility, having proved to be a crafty passer out of the high post (she averaged nearly four assists per game in each of her final two college seasons) and a capable scorer at different spots on the floor.

In her debut against Las Vegas on Wednesday, Cox played a career-high 19 minutes, scoring four points, hauling in five rebounds and recording one block, which came on a baseline drive by Aces forward Dearica Hamby. She was a frequent screener at the top of the arc or at the elbow and scored her lone basket on a smooth pick-and-roll with Cooper.

“I thought Lauren, in a really difficult situation, did some really good things,” Fisher told reporters after the game. “No practice, no shootaround, no idea on terminology, on sets and actions. Because of her feel for the game, she just did a lot of really smart things. She was in the right places at times. Offensively, she understood the right play to make, defensively when to rotate or how to send somebody else to go rotate. So we thought we saw some great things from Lauren and we know that it was a lot to get here and fly in and show up to a game (having) never been with these people before. But we thought she did a really admirable job.”

With the Fever she seemed to never find a stable role, appearing in just 25 total games and recording fewer than 300 minutes. The timing of the initial release was especially puzzling, considering Indiana has a league-worst 1–15 record and should seemingly be looking to see what they have in their young pieces. For a Los Angeles team already capable of competing in the present, but also building with an eye toward the future, adding Cox is a move that could play major dividends down the road.

The 2021 WNBA All-Star team was announced Wednesday with Sky star Candace Parker and Sun star Jonquel Jones headlining the 12-person squad set to compete against Team USA on July 14. Team WNBA was determined after the top 36 vote-getters from the fans (50%), players (25%) and media (25%) who were not on the USA Basketball five-on-five roster were provided to head coaches, who then voted for five frontcourt players, three guards and four more players at any position.

I was among the media members who filled out an official ballot, which consisted of 10 spots (six frontcourt spots and four backcourt spots), ahead of our Saturday evening voting deadline. Here was my ballot:

B: Arike Ogunbowale
B: Courtney Vandersloot
B: Courtney Williams
B: Marina Mabrey
F: Jonquel Jones
F: Liz Cambage
F: DeWanna Bonner
F: Brionna Jones
F: Betnijah Laney
F: Ruthy Hebard

It’s hard to argue against any of the players who were eventually included in the game, but weren’t on my ballot. All 12 who made it are certainly deserving choices. While Parker has played in just 10 games, Chicago is 9–1 in those contests and has looked very much like her All-Star self when on court. Hamby, the two-time reigning Sixth Woman of the Year, is averaging 11.3 points per game and is No. 2 on the Aces in net rating, among Las Vegas players who average more than 20 minutes per game. (Jackie Young was a close cut on my ballot and is first on the Aces in net rating with a +18.2). Copper has emerged as an elite scorer who breaks down opposing defenses because of her speed, strength and skill. And Sabally is among the league’s most dynamic frontcourt players, averaging 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

In terms of the names on my ballot who didn’t make the final roster: Mabrey got off to an unbelievably hot start to the season, and for a long time was putting up 50-40-90 splits. While her numbers have dipped a bit of late, she’s still averaging 14.1 points per game on 42.7% shooting from the field and has been a versatile defender on the much-improved Wings.

Hebard has played in the fewest minutes of most players legitimately considered for the All-Star team, but her advanced metrics are impressive. Entering Wednesday night’s game vs. the Wings, she was No. 6 in win shares per 40 minutes, behind only Jones, Cambage, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Brittney Griner. And she was No. 12 in the WNBA in overall win shares (2.2), just behind names like Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles and DeWanna Bonner and fairing better than frontcourt players like Hamby, Sabally and Napheesa Collier, all of whom will appear in the All-Star Game. Among other additional considerations, the 6' 4" forward flashed an improved offensive game with Parker out of the lineup, scoring in double digits in six of eight games between May 19 and June 5.

In terms of other possible worthy candidates, Nneka Ogwumike is obviously deserving from an ability standpoint, but she’s played in just five games this season.

Liberty guard Sami Whitcomb was also a fully deserving candidate, averaging a career-high 12.2 points per game this season on 50.3% shooting from the field, 45.5% from three and a 68.3% true shooting percentage. She’s also recorded 1.9 win shares this season, more than a number of All-Stars who did make the team and has a higher win shares per 40 minutes mark than both Sabally and Copper. While her not making the All-Star team isn’t the biggest surprise, the fact that Whitcomb was not even among the 36 players eventually voted on by the WNBA coaches is perhaps the biggest shocker of the process. Sure, 50% of the input on the voting results were determined by the fans, and Whitcomb might not be the biggest name in the league, but she’s outperformed a number of other players who were included in the top-36 list, including, among others, Elena Delle Donne, who is yet to appear in a game this season.

With 21.4 seconds to play in overtime Sunday and the Aces trailing the Storm 92–91, Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer asked star point guard Chelsea Gray what kind of play she wanted to run. Laimbeer diagrammed an offensive set giving Gray the options, and space, that she wanted and ended the huddle by asking the team’s high-profile free-agent acquisition, “Does that work for you?”

“Yup, that’s fine,” Gray said.

“You got it,” Laimbeer responded.

Coming out of the timeout, reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson set a screen for Gray at the top of the three-point arc, creating a switch. Gray faked driving left before crossing back for an elbow jumper over the outstretched arms of Breanna Stewart. Her jumper fell, much to the delight of the home crowd.

“It’s why we got her, to take over the game, direct the offense and make big shots and big plays,” Laimbeer told reporters afterward. “She did just that.”

Gray was stellar in the second half and overtime of Sunday’s 95–92 victory, putting on a vintage performance that reinforced just how much talent Las Vegas has on its roster. While Gray is putting up her lowest scoring output since her second WNBA season and is taking her fewest shots per game since her third season, she’s headed to her first Olympics this July, and there’s no questions about how impactful she can be on the floor. She’s a bona fide star and a big reason why this year’s Aces team could be better by season’s end than last year’s.

More broadly, though, Storm-Aces games continue to live up to the hype, with Sunday’s contest featuring an intensity that rivals high-stakes games.

“Definitely playoff atmosphere,” Stewart said afterward. “That’s what you want as a player, you want those games where it’s loud, it’s tough to hear, adrenaline is rushing. So they got us obviously in Vegas. They got us tonight, we’re gonna continue to make sure we close out this stretch before Olympic break and then come back and finish the rest of the regular season and get ready for what’s to come.”

Let’s hope that what’s to come is a five-game series between Las Vegas and Seattle.

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