Sparks select Jasmine Walker, Stephanie Watts and Arella Guirantes in WNBA draft

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Alabama's Jasmine Walker brings the ball up the court during an NCAA women's basketball game on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Clemson, SC. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Alabama's Jasmine Walker receives a pass duirng a game against Clemson. (Richard Shiro / Associated Press)

On Thursday night, Derek Fisher was smiling. That might not be the case much longer.

The Sparks head coach and general manager executed his plan to add versatile, athletic players during Thursday’s WNBA draft by picking Alabama forward Jasmine Walker seventh overall and North Carolina guard Stephanie Watts 10th overall. He even got an unexpected gift when projected top-five pick Arella Guirantes fell to the Sparks at 22.

Now the hard decisions come as the Sparks must trim their packed roster to 15 for training camp that begins April 25.

“As a coach, it’s exciting,” Fisher said. “As a GM, not so much, honestly.”

The Sparks got three first-round talents for the price of two when Guirantes slipped to the second round. The two-time All-American averaged 21.3 points, six rebounds and 5.2 assists last season for Rutgers. Fisher said he just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to add the 5-foot-11 guard, even if it meant the pick changed the calculus for his training camp

roster.

North Carolina guard Stephanie Watts drives.
North Carolina guard Stephanie Watts drives against North Carolina State during a game last season. (Gerry Broome / Associated Press)

“The system isn’t really set up for everybody to be on the team,” Fisher said. “[Players] know that better than we do. And I think that’ll raise the level of our competition in camp this year, which is one of the No. 1 priorities we had going into free agency and also into the draft.”

The Sparks had 14 players on their roster entering Thursday. Add five draft picks, including third-rounders Ivana Raca (28th overall from Wake Forest) and Aina Ayuso (34th from Spain). The number must come to 12 for the final roster.

Both first-round picks are eager for the challenge.

“I’m used to having to work 10 times as hard as everybody else,” said Walker, a 6-foot-3 forward who averaged 19.1 points and 9.4 rebounds last season while shooting 39.8% from the field. “Working for something … that will be the least of my worries because I’ve been working all my life for what I want.”

The 5-foot-11 Watts didn’t have the hype of a first-round pick. After being named ACC freshman of the year in 2016, Watts missed the final five games of her sophomore year because of a knee injury that also claimed her junior season.

When she transferred to USC in 2019 as a graduate student, she appeared in just four games before another injury struck.

She returned to North Carolina last year, where she ranked second with 12 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

“A lot of people [were] counting me out because of injuries and I like that,” said Watts, who ranks second in North Carolina history in three-pointers made with 275. “I like when people sleep on me because I know me and I know what I can do.”

After such a busy free agency period that included adding Nia Coffey, Bria Holmes, Amanda Zahui B. and Eric Wheeler, few expected the Sparks to pursue a large draft haul. Yet the team traded for an additional pick Wednesday before the draft, signaling Fisher’s aggressive start to the beginning of his general manager tenure as the Sparks regroup after losing Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray.

“This was a transitional, transformational offseason for our organization,” Fisher said. “We felt like tonight continued to represent that, that we can’t stand pat when there are opportunities to grow and evolve and adapt and change.”

Around the WNBA

Though the draft featured several surprises, the top two picks went as expected with Texas center Charli Collier and Finnish national teamer Awak Kuier going first and second, respectively, to the Dallas Wings.

UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere went sixth overall to the New York Liberty. Onyenwere averaged 19.1 points and 7.2 rebounds as a senior, helping the Bruins to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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