College is in session as Sparks start coaching camp

With the anticipation of a child waiting for Santa’s visit, Curt Miller rose at 6 a.m. Sunday. The Sparks head coach was ready to unwrap a new season and assemble his new roster on his personal basketball Christmas.

After an offseason focused on rebuilding the once-proud franchise’s business operations and team personnel, the first-year head coach can eagerly return to what he loves most — teaching basketball.

“I haven’t looked forward to a first day like this in a long, long time,” he said Sunday at El Camino College, where the Sparks opened training camp. “There’s something special about building your foundation, building a culture and starting, starting again with a whole new group of players.”

After seven years in Connecticut, where Miller guided the Sun to six consecutive playoff appearances and two WNBA Finals berths, the two-time league coach of the year is starting from scratch in L.A., where the Sparks have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The challenge has been daunting but exciting for Miller, who lamented that the consistent core of players in Connecticut started to make him feel more like a manager than a coach.

Miller was in true coaching form Sunday as he started installing new schemes, setting expectations for how the staff wants to space the court on offense and, conversely, explaining how the defense plans to shrink the floor. He preached the importance of giving grace to rookies such as first-round draft pick Zia Cooke while also elevating the play of veterans getting used to a new system.

Forward Nneka Ogwumike was excited to reunite with the coach who made his WNBA coaching debut as an assistant with the Sparks in 2015 because she wanted to learn from Miller’s extensive knowledge of the game. The first day of school didn’t disappoint.

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“For me, my barometer, especially in coaching and being a player that’s coached, is learning every day,” Ogwumike said. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned just today.”

Miller hopes to base the team’s identity on the same physical defense that defined his success in Connecticut. He called it “deja vu” that he has yet another deep, talented group of post players, but he’s traded Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas for Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Azurá Stevens and Dearica Hamby. Hamby attended Sunday’s training camp about six weeks after giving birth to her son Legend.

In no surprise, Nneka Ogwumike will be the team’s focal point, Miller said.

Ogwumike, who was an All-Star starter for the first time in her career last year, is coming off her best scoring season since 2017, averaging 18.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season. During the team’s challenging season, the former most valuable player was a steadying force amid a coaching change and after Liz Cambage quit the team.

The chaos didn’t deter Ogwumike from re-signing with the team as a free agent, in large part because she believed in the plan outlined by Miller and new general manager Karen Bryant. The executives rebuilt the front office with the theme of winning with great people before great players. The tactic has relieved responsibilities from Ogwumike, who can return to starring on the court instead of trying to hold the franchise together single-handedly.

“This is the first time I’ve really experienced what I believe to be a professional organization,” Ogwumike said, “and that leaves space for me to not have to step into a manager role, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time to do the things that I really want to do, which is play basketball and hang out with my teammates. I really feel like I’ve relinquished a lot of that because we have some truly phenomenal people that have turned this organization into what it deserves to be.”

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