Alana Beard's move to Sparks intriguing
On the eve of last year's WNBA season, Alana Beard spoke about her return to the WNBA in hopeful terms, but you couldn't help noticing the doubt in her voice. Especially since she also talked about preparation for her life after basketball.
It turned out Beard did not play in the WNBA in 2011, her second consecutive missed season because of a severely injured left ankle.
Beard averaged 16.2 points per game in her first six seasons for the team that drafted her No. 2 overall in 2004, Washington. Without her, the Mystics finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2010, then last in 2011. In between those polar-opposite seasons was the Mystics' decision to go cheap on front-office salaries and not bring back general manager Angela Taylor, which in turn led to the departure of coach Julie Plank.
Some speculated that Beard, watching the Mystics' slide into the East basement last summer, was better off to not even attempt a return. She says she tried, but she wasn't ready ... and now she is. But she won't be with Washington.
Last week, Beard became perhaps the most intriguing of the league's free-agent signings -- and the one surrounded by the most uncertainty -- when she joined the Los Angeles Sparks. Beard has been back on the court since late January, playing overseas in Israel.
"My body just wasn't functioning [last summer]," Beard said of missing her second consecutive WNBA season. "I tried several times to come back, but it was just too painful, and I had to just shut it down and let it rest. I got up every single day doing my rehab, knowing that eventually I would get back. I've had a lot of life lessons from this."
Will the 5-foot-11 guard be a reasonable facsimile of the player who was an All-Star as recently as 2009? Or are the Sparks just taking a chance?
Even if it's the latter, it's a worthwhile risk for L.A., a team that's been trying during this WNBA offseason to change its chemistry. The Sparks brought in Carol Ross as head coach, luring her away from an assistant's job in Atlanta where she was clearly a major tactical contributor for head coach Marynell Meadors.
"I don't think anybody's ever questioned the Sparks' ability to score points," Ross said. "They have done that about as well as any club in the league. It's about shoring up the defense a bit. And when you add Alana Beard into the mix, you not only add one of the best defensive players in the league, but you've also added a very complete player."
Beard's signing is among the many moves that have been happening in the league since the start of the new year, beginning with Seattle's trade of Swin Cash, Le'Coe Willingham and the No. 23 pick in this year's draft to Chicago for the No. 2 selection.
There was some mild worry among Seattle fans about keeping unrestricted free agents Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright, the Storm's highly prized backcourt, but both re-signed with the team Feb. 9. Seattle also brought back free-agent guard Katie Smith and signed former No. 1 draft pick Ann Wauters, who last played in the WNBA in 2009. Wauters, a free-agent center from Belgium, didn't compete in the WNBA the past two summers; she wanted to rest in 2010 and gave birth to a baby boy in 2011.
Other recent signings of note include forward Tamika Catchings with Indiana (the only team she's ever played for), center Ruth Riley's move from San Antonio to Chicago (closer to her home state of Indiana), guard Candice Wiggins' returning to defending champion Minnesota (despite some speculation that she could get more playing time elsewhere) and forward Shameka Christon's joining San Antonio (she was injured and waived by Chicago before the start of last season).
The wheeling and dealing will continue, including some signings that might leave fans puzzled. If you see your team picking up a player you're not very familiar with, just remember what's going on this year: the London Olympics.
The international women's hoops schedule always has some conflicts with the WNBA, but especially in an Olympic year. It means the league must take about a monthlong break -- in this case, from July 14 to Aug. 15 -- and start the season in May, rather than June.
The earlier start -- on May 18 with L.A. visiting Seattle -- means more conflicts with WNBA players' overseas commitments as they finish those seasons. Add to that some non-American players either will skip this WNBA season or will play only a portion of it because of their national-team responsibilities in an Olympic year.
The result: Many teams will have patchwork rosters to a degree, especially in training camp. Some of the signees might stay on for a part of the season or maybe the entire thing.
Beard, of course, is out to prove herself in a very different way than those players. She doesn't have to establish whether she's talented enough to play in the WNBA, but whether she's healthy enough.
After playing through a series of ankle injuries over the years, she was hurt badly enough just before the 2010 WNBA season that she couldn't compete that summer. She had torn her left posterior tibial tendon, which is a major support structure of the foot. She rehabbed all that season and through the winter of 2010-11.
Her optimism about returning to the WNBA for 2011 never panned out. However, Beard, who will be 30 in May, feels she's really ready to compete again in the WNBA. The Sparks believe that, too.
"Alana is very, very talented," Sparks general manager Penny Toler said. "She's different from any guard we have on our team with creating her own shot. She has leadership ability, is able to get to the hole, is a defensive stopper. Once the doctors gave her a clean bill of health, it was easy for me. For us, she was the crown jewel of this free agency."
The addition of Beard is part of a series of moves by the Sparks to regain their footing in the Western Conference and the league overall after missing the playoffs last year. In January, they brought aboard Ross as coach. Earlier this month, the Sparks dealt a 27-year-old player who seemed to be spinning her wheels last season (guard Noelle Quinn) to Washington for a 25-year-old who was doing the same thing (Marissa Coleman). Whether a change of scenery will help both remains to be seen, but a fresh start just might work.
Same goes for Beard, although her issues have been physical. To a degree, that's been the Sparks' problem, too. Injuries limited star forward Candace Parker to 10 games in 2010 and 17 in 2011. She was very productive in the time she did play (20.6 ppg in '10, 18.5 ppg in '11), but L.A. simply must have her on the court. She's not replaceable.
As a franchise, the Sparks have two WNBA titles (2001, '02) and have been in the playoffs 11 times in the league's first 15 seasons. But in the decade since L.A.'s last championship, the Sparks have been frustrated by how "almost-but-not-quite" the team has been.
In the past nine seasons, the Sparks have lost in the WNBA Finals once, the Western Conference finals three times and the conference semifinals three times.
In 2008, No. 1 draft pick Parker was both rookie of year and MVP, and the Sparks were 1.3 seconds away from sweeping San Antonio for a berth in the WNBA Finals. But Sophia Young's turnaround, lunging, buzzer-beating 14-footer won Game 2 of the West finals for San Antonio, and then the rejuvenated Silver Stars took the decisive game as well.
In 2009, the Sparks extended Phoenix to three games in the West finals but fell short to the eventual league champs.
In 2010 -- the season dominated by Seattle -- the Sparks made the playoffs despite a 13-21 record but were eliminated in the West semis by the Storm. Last year was another losing record for L.A., 15-19, but no playoff berth this time. Jennifer Gillom coached through 10 games in 2011, then was replaced by Joe Bryant in his second stint in L.A.
In October, WNBA veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro said she wasn't sure whether she'd return for her 15th WNBA season (and third with L.A.) in 2012. And if she did, she said, she hoped the Sparks would more clearly define their identity as a team.
L.A. is still waiting on Penicheiro's decision, and 15-year veteran Tina Thompson also is an unrestricted free agent who might or might not have a future with the Sparks.
So some things remain up in the air for the Sparks. But if the pieces come together, including Beard, Los Angeles could be back where this franchise is more used to being: in contention.
"When I had my first game in Israel, back playing five-on-five, I felt this extreme sense of calmness and confidence," Beard said. "It felt like I hadn't been away. I guess that's just from the work that I'd done up to that point. When it was time to play, I was ready to play.
"I'm in a different place; my body hasn't felt this good in two years. As far as going cross-country [from Washington, D.C.], what better city could you want to be in than L.A.? They have a great coach coming in, and I've always said L.A. was a talented team, and why wouldn't you want to be a part of that?"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to espnW, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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