Layshia Clarendon I will not take this for granted. She knows what it’s like to be on the other side.
The 10-year guard veteran was one of 12 players added to the Sparks’ inaugural roster Thursday and will officially return to the WNBA on Friday after a year-long hiatus the phoenix Mercury at the Crypto.com Arena.
Familiar faces like Nneka Ogwumike, her sister Chiney Ogwumike and her guard Lexi Brown will join top signings Azurá Stevens, Jasmine Thomas and Dearica Hamby to lead the Sparks’ roster as the team hopes to return to the postseason for the first time since 2020. It will be coach Curt Miller’s first season leading the team.
Clarendon, guard Jordin Canada and third-year forward Joyner Holmes survived the uncertainty of non-guaranteed training camp contracts and made it to the finals alongside rookie Zia Cooke. With forward Katie Lou Samuelson still on the roster but unable to play this season as she is expecting her first child, the Sparks have excluded guard Nia Clouden from their waivers after the Connecticut Sun relinquished the No. 12 pick in the 2022 draft had where she played 28 regular season games for Miller last season.
Despite earning All-Star honors in 2017 and playing nine straight seasons on five different teams, Clarendon has had to reclaim a league spot after being waived by the Minnesota Lynx in 2022. He agreed to a trial where any small mistake could have cost him dearly Clarendon said the job required an insanely high degree of vulnerability for them, but as he took a shower after the Sparks’ first preseason game against Phoenix last week, Clarendon was blown away overcome with emotion as he realized his return to the WNBA was once again a reality.
“I don’t even know if you could put into words the courage and determination and heartache and sadness that you go through when you’re not in this league for a year,” Clarendon said after Thursday’s training session. “I was completely heartbroken and I wasn’t sure if I had what it took to come back or if I was ready to do my best.”
But, according to Clarendon, creating a definitive squad also comes with “survival debt”. All of those who stayed in the WNBA Thursday did so only after other capable teammates were fired.
“There are 144 players at home that could be in the WNBA,” Nneka Ogwumike said after Thursday’s practice.
This week, the Sparks waived former first-round draft pick sophomore Rae Burrell and rookies Monika Czinano and Yang Liwei. The team initially dropped Karlie Samuelson, a WNBA journeyman who played in Australia last offseason, before bringing her back on Thursday with a hardship contract as Thomas (knee) and Stevens (back) miss Friday’s season opener.
After breaking the news to Samuelson on Tuesday, Miller general manager grabbed Karen Bryant’s arm and half-jokingly banged his head on Bryant’s shoulder out of frustration as Samuelson left the practice area with his head bowed.
“The mental and emotional work that this job entails is something that’s hard for the average person to put into words what it means to show up and perform every night,” Clarendon said. “I’m heartbroken for the newcomers who aren’t getting a fair chance. Because it’s a veteran league… the veterans will have an advantage because we know the game. Our game is so different from college.”
Cooke, the 10th pick overall in last month’s draft, is the only rookie in the Sparks roster and the only Sparks first-round draft pick still in the WNBA this season since Nneka Ogwumike in 2012. As it becomes increasingly difficult for freshmen to break into the WNBA, the high standard could also hinder the league’s growth, as new players cannot directly carry their collegiate popularity to the pro level.
Alexis MorrisDrafted 22nd overall after helping Louisiana State to a national championship that year, sparked controversy on Twitter after being annulled by the Connecticut Sun on Wednesday. Post and later delete“If we can’t create roster spots for freshmen, cut the vets down” and “The vets need to know when to cut the net and pass the torch, bro.”
As the WNBA enters its 27th season and players push for growth, including charter flights, larger rosters and more teams, veterans share the frustration of freshmen but stressed the importance of respecting the sport.
“The league predates almost every player entering the league now. So you also have to know your history and who came before you and what organizations came before you to understand how hard it is to play at this league level,” said Nneka Ogwumike. “With NIL I’m not sure that’s necessarily true and that’s not to say the players aren’t good enough, but some of those players need to understand how difficult it is to make it here. We want more players.”
While teams can promote up to 12 players, the strict salary cap limits most teams to 11. Ogwumike, the players’ union president, said recent discussions about a squad expansion have stalled because players have been told the solution is “not lucrative”. But with the WNBA playing a record 40 regular-season games this season, the issue of roster size goes beyond simply providing professional opportunities for new players and becomes an issue of player health.
“If we don’t want to create more jobs in the teams, we need more teams and we need more planes because we have more games,” Ogwumike said. “We can’t have 11 players on every team playing 40 games and not feeling like they’re up to it.”