Sparks’ Lexie Brown proves importance of WNBA role player

The WNBA’s third-best three-pointer watched the league’s annual three-pointer contest on a TV in Las Vegas, more than 1,700 miles from the All-Star celebrations in Chicago. Lexie Brown would have loved to be there, but she didn’t receive an invitation to the competition, which was theoretically created to highlight the very skill the 45.7 percent three-pointer possesses.

To say the Sparks guard was “a little” disappointed is an understatement, Brown said.

The All-Star Game was touted as a torch passing, evidenced by 25-year-old A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart, 27, presenting flowers to retired legends Sue Bird, 41, and Sylvia Fowles, 36. But the weekend’s other events mostly recycled names from the readily available all-star pool or from players who were already in Chicago. The six-man field in the three-point contest included five All-Stars, a player who shot more than 40% from three-point range, and a sentimental fan favorite, Chicago native Allie Quigley.

Two days after Quigley won her record-breaking fourth crown in three-point shooting, Brown was back in the practice studio and the Sparks were working out like she always had. She has no problem proving on the pitch why she deserves a slice of the spotlight next time.

The 5-foot-9 guard is averaging career-highs in points (eight), rebounds (2.7), minutes (27.9) and three percent going into Thursday’s rematch with her former team Chicago Sky in the Enter Arena. She jumped back into the starting lineup after Brittney Sykes tested positive for the coronavirus on July 1 and helped the Sparks (10-13) win three straight games while averaging 12.8 points and 11 who sank 23 of the team who scored during Sykes’ four-point threes. game absence.

For years, Brown told her peers that she was the best shot in the league. On her fourth team in five years, she finally gets a chance to show it.

“She was a great shooter,” said Sykes, who recalled a game when Brown lost 31 points to Sykes’ Syracuse team as a freshman in Maryland. “I’m not surprised. I’m happy that everyone else in the world can see her shine.”

Sparks guard Lexie Brown is chasing a loose ball alongside Lynx guard Moriah Jefferson.

Sparks guard Lexie Brown chases a loose ball alongside Lynx guard Moriah Jefferson during a game earlier this season.

(Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

A ninth overall pick in 2018, Brown’s journeyman career in the WNBA is not uncommon, even for first-round draft picks. There are no preliminary interviews or combinations due to the quick turnaround between the NCAA season ending in March and the April draft. Most teams only draft based on the best available player, not always best fit, Brown said.

While players aren’t necessarily doomed, the situation isn’t particularly promising either.

“You just have to put your head down and work and hopefully find yourself in a position where you can be successful,” said Brown, who switched from the Connecticut Sun to the Minnesota Lynx for two seasons to win a championship with the Sky before you settle down with the Sparks. “For a lot of players, it probably takes the entire rookie contract to figure that out. … Coming to this point, year five, I feel like I’m just getting started.”

After averaging 1.6 points in 9.5 minutes in 17 appearances off the bench during Sky’s championship season, Brown received a qualifying offer to stay in Chicago. She refused. But the contract submission wasn’t just a feel-good story from a calm, confident player who believed in her abilities. It was a business decision.

While the league’s salary cap was increased by 31% as part of the last collective bargaining agreement in 2020, Brown knew the deal didn’t benefit every player equally. The maximum salary for top players increased from $117,500 to $215,000 in 2020, an 83% jump. The rookie minimum increased by 35.8% from 2019 to 2020.

As a result, mid-level players are often crowded out.

Brown, a 27-year-old aspiring general manager, understood Sky’s salary cap situation meant she could have been the best player in training camp and the team still wouldn’t have had the cash to sign her for the season .

“That’s life,” said Brown, who is equally realistic about her role in the league and optimistic about growth opportunities.

Brown was not offended when she received Chicago’s Veteran’s Minimum qualifying offer. She was grateful that Chicago’s James Wade and former Sparks general manager and coach Derek Fisher were able to work out a deal to give Chicago the rights to Chinese center Li Yueru.

Arriving at training camp on a non-guaranteed contract, Brown looked at the list and understood her task. It was to shoot.

Though Brown’s primary focus was shooting three points, it was a defensive play during training camp that Sykes most excited about her new teammate. The guard, who earned first-team all-defense last year, watched as Brown jumped into a fast lane and intercepted a pass. Eyeing wide-eyed at assistant coach Latricia Trammell, Sykes realized she finally had a defensive partner in the former ACC Defensive Player of the Year, who earned the title after joining Duke.

“You’ve got two players like that, it’s like you’ve got two great defenders in football,” Sparks interim coach Fred Williams said.

The Sparks are fourth in the league in steals, led by Sykes’ league-leading 2.1 per game, and fourth in points off turnovers.

Brown said she fully embraced the three-and-D role for the Sparks in seventh place. The specialized job is ubiquitous in the NBA, where even role players are becoming common names, but WNBA players in the same position are yet to gain the same recognition.

The WNBA has instead focused its marketing on identifying and promoting its next megastar era, potentially limiting the league’s growth potential.

“If you market other players and not just big names, not just kids who came out of BCS schools, you’re going to continue to expand the market with people who see themselves in us,” said Natasha Cloud, guardian who Washington Mystics once recruited Brown to Maryland before Cloud transferred to St. Joseph’s. “By expanding marketing in the W, our league will only continue to grow.”

Sparks' Lexie Brown reacts after scoring a three-point basket against Phoenix Mercury.

Sparks’ Lexie Brown reacts after scoring a three-point basket against Phoenix Mercury on July 4 at Arena.

(Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Cloud and Brown got a glimpse of a marketing blueprint in Athletes Unlimited. They praised the fledgling league’s commitment to sharing the stories of all of its players who signed up for an unproven format that doesn’t rely on coaches or general managers.

Athletes An unlimited number of players take on bench and front office duties by designing teams and setting game times and rotations each week. Brown thrived in the supporting role and got an early shot at her future goal of becoming a WNBA or NBA general manager. On the court, she shot 46.9% from behind the arc over the five-week league and finished fourth on the individual leaderboard, where players earn points similar to fantasy football achievements.

The players no longer had to answer to coaches or managers and felt empowered. Brown credited the league with building confidence for all WNBA players who found their new homes offseason.

Cloud said Brown was repeatedly disrespected early in her WNBA career and “it took away her confidence, it took away her confidence in her game, her abilities.

“I think Athletes Unlimited gave us all a sense of freedom to just go out there, find our love for the game again and play freely,” said Cloud, who finished second on the AU leaderboard and now leads the WNBA in assists with 7.2 per game.

Brown has continued her impressive game at both ends of the court into the WNBA season. She was second among AU players by her 38 steals, having seven steals in two wins while guarding Sabrina Ionescu and Skylar Diggins-Smith on back-to-back nights. She also made six out of nine three-pointers.

Considering her unheralded history in the league this season, some may have been unsure of Brown’s true shooting ability.

“But I think as the season progresses,” she said, “people are like, ‘OK, she’s a shooter.’ ”

The next step is to make sure someone at the league office knows. Sparks’ Lexie Brown proves importance of WNBA role player

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