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All eyes on Ogwumike, Lavender as Sparks open 2015

No matter how frustratingly just-not-good-enough last season got for the Los Angeles Sparks, things stayed relatively harmonious among the players. So says Nneka Ogwumike, their second-leading scorer in 2014.

"Coming out of college, you're used to complete stability and consistency, so it was a challenge last year for all of us," Ogwumike said of a season that included the Sparks firing coach Carol Ross the day after the All-Star game. "But I think we did a great job of maintaining our bond as teammates. We had no issues in the locker room, and we came out and played as hard as we could."

Of course, we have a slight qualifier here in that this is Ogwumike's view, which is -- to her credit -- always bright and optimistic. Let's put it this way, Ogwumike probably could have found something upbeat about the movie "Melancholia."

But it serves to demonstrate the Sparks' good fortune in having Ogwumike, who was their No. 1 draft pick in 2012. Now starting her fourth season in the WNBA, she has blossomed into very significant on-court and off-court roles for the franchise. And with Candace Parker out an indefinite time as she rests following her overseas season, Ogwumike is all the more valuable for Los Angeles.

And she'll have strong support in the paint in Jantel Lavender, who's entering her fifth season in the league.

The 6-foot-4 center Lavender is 26; the 6-foot-2 forward Ogwumike will be 25 in July. They are in the prime of their careers, and they have the kind of personalities to handle what could be complicating factors this season for the Sparks.

There's a new coach in Brian Agler. And even though he's a longtime veteran of the league, there's still some adjustment to any change in staff. Along with Parker's absence, guard Kristi Toliver is expected to miss the first couple weeks of this season as she plays on the Slovakian national team.

Last year, the Sparks were without Toliver during stretches of the season for the same reason. That hurt because they missed her perimeter shooting. But they also just found a variety of irritating ways to lose games, particularly at home. The Sparks were 10-12 overall when Ross was let go and replaced by general manager Penny Toler on the sidelines on July 20.

The Sparks had gotten a new ownership group, led by Magic Johnson and Dodgers chairman Mark Walter, before last season started. And the new owners pulled the plug on Ross, despite the fact that she'd been the WNBA's coach of the year just two seasons earlier.

The Sparks still made the playoffs last year, finishing with the same 16-18 record as San Antonio. The Sparks lost the tiebreaker and took the fourth slot in the Western Conference playoffs. In Game 1 of their series against eventual league champion Phoenix, the Sparks showed everyone a glimpse of their best, falling by just three points, 75-72.

"Our main goal is that L.A. has to find an identity. That's one thing we struggle with year to year. I think this will be the year where we finally nail it down." Nneka Ogwumike

But then they went home to the Staples Center, where they went 7-10 for the regular season, and were blown out 93-68.

The Sparks' last appearance in the WNBA finals was 2003, coming after their back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002. Parker just turned 29 last month and she has won championships everywhere -- in college, overseas and with USA Basketball -- except the WNBA. That weighs on her. But she thinks she has a better chance to help the Sparks finish strongly and pursue a title if she gives herself a break now.

How long will Parker sit out? Nobody with the Sparks knows, so they are following Agler's lead of just concentrating only on who's on the court.

"We always want to have Candace out there, but she needs to do what is good for her career," Ogwumike said. "She's still our teammate, and we're still close to her. There's no bad feelings about it. But I think this will be a testament to the Sparks improving as a team.

"And our main goal is that L.A. has to find an identity. That's one thing we struggle with year to year. I think this will be the year where we finally nail it down."

While the team itself tries to do that, players like Ogwumike and Lavender are well into the process of doing it individually. Ogwumke averaged 15.8 points and 7.1 rebounds last season. Lavender was at 11.9 and 6.3.

Now, the Sparks have Parker's 19.4 PPG and 7.1 RPG to make up for, and they'll do that in different ways. Agler has some very young players, and others from overseas, whom he will work to piece in around Los Angeles' established core, minus Parker and Toliver.

Then the Sparks will need to play as if they're not just waiting for either of those two to return -- even though they'll be eager to welcome them back. Again, this is where Ogwumike and Lavender should be so critical to Los Angeles.

During the recent USA Basketball team training camp in Las Vegas, coach Geno Auriemma mentioned Lavender as a player who pleasantly surprised him with how much she has continued to improve.

"Last year was a step forward for me as far as coming into my own more and being able to play off of other people better," Lavender said. "I was able to then move into being more of a scorer and a leader for the team.

"Because Nneka and Candace have been there, it hasn't been as much of a focal point for me to be that big scorer. Now I think I will need to have that mindset more, both with getting some buckets and offensive rebounding. It's about personnel, and knowing what the team needs."

Ogwumike, who was part of the Americans' gold-winning team at the world championship last fall, has moved into that final top tier of elite players. That doesn't mean just with her skill level, but also her willingness to take responsibility for the entire team's performance.

"I think it's innate in me to just want the best for my teammates, and I try to communicate that and represent that by example," Ogwumike said. "Trying to be that kind of leader has always been inside of me, but being at Stanford, with Tara [VanDerveer] and my teammates, they helped me break out of my shell."

Now Ogwumike is in the position of being the Sparks' star player, who then will need to adjust a bit whenever Parker returns. But if there's anyone in the WNBA who can do that gracefully, it's Ogwumike.

"We have some people we won't see on court until late June or July," Ogwumike said. "We have to have some flexibility. But that's OK. I'm really excited about working with Coach Agler and the support staff he has. I'm looking forward to this year."