The Los Angeles Sparks have been a bright spot early on in the 2023 WNBA season. While improvement wasn’t unexpected given their offseason changes, it’s notable that the Sparks are 2-2 and extremely competitive, especially considering that two starters haven’t played yet (Azura Stevens and Jasmine Thomas) and the team is wrestling with a non-COVID illness outbreak.
Sixth-year guard Lexie Brown was a reliable rotation player with the Sparks last season. This year, she’s breaking out as a plus starter and is a very early name to watch in the league’s Most Improved Player race. After an opening night victory over the Phoenix Mercury in which Brown was pivotal as the Sparks mounted a comeback, franchise star Nneka Ogwumike weighed in on her growth postgame, highlighting what we’ve seen play out in the week since.
“Lexie, I think, is at an inflection point of her career,” Ogwumike said. “She’s always known that she’s good, and she is good, but this is where you turn from good to great. She’s stepping into what I think requires to be great: a vulnerability. You have to be vulnerable to take a hard shot, you have to be vulnerable to keep shooting when it’s not going in, knowing that you are the right person to take the shot. I see that slowly happening with her.”
After setting a career-high with 26 points against the Mercury, a game which she sent the game to overtime with a clutch layup, it’s safe to say that vulnerability has fully set in.
Brown is averaging 14.5 points and 2.8 assists per game and is seventh in the league in true-shooting among players who have played at least 50 minutes this season. It’s made all the more impressive considering Brown, who stands 5’9, is the only player in the top-15 who is shorter than 5’11.
The change in Brown’s usage is notable and a credit to her skill development. Per Synergy Sports, her pick-and-roll volume is way up, from 39.3 percent of her possessions last season to 60.5 percent in 2023. It’s also a credit to a restructured offense in Los Angeles. Much of last season featured stagnancy and poor spacing. New pieces on the roster have helped, but so has intentionality in the half court to play with more pace.
Brown has long been a capable shooter, but cemented herself as one of the best in the league last season. She was adept from the slots and gunning off of flare screens. What stood out immediately with her this year was how willingly Sparks coach Curt Miller opened the playbook to emphasize her shooting ability and play out of it. We saw motion in relocation and some off-ball screening actions last year, but that doesn’t compare to this.
Shooting 42.9 percent from three is very good no matter how you slice it. When factoring in volume (5.3 attempts per game) and movement, her ability to knock down shots from behind the arc hits defenses that much harder.
Defenders can’t duck under ball screens against her. They can’t fall asleep when guarding her in the weak corner. Overplay a denial and she’ll hard cut to get the ball and an easy look at the rim. Brown is demanding help at high level, and making the most of it with crisp pocket passing when she draws two.
All of this is gigantic for a team that needed to juice its offense. With consistent pick-and-roll reads and playing with an efficacy that defenses have to honor and guard accordingly, Brown has been L.A.’s engine throughout the first few weeks of the season.
The Sparks didn’t have enough consistent, three-level scoring threats last season. A season-ending injury to new signee Stephanie Talbot over the offseason and Katie Lou Samuelson’s maternity leave brought back some of those same concerns prior to camp starting this time around. While Brown was expected to be a significant contributor, the way she’s risen her play has been pivotal in opening up L.A.’s offense. She’s created windows for Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike that weren’t often there last season, and she’s started to form quality synergy with Dearica Hamby. Her performance is a major reason the team is tied for third in the league in offensive rating at this early point in the season.
Will Brown shoot right around 43 percent from deep for the entire season? That’s a lofty goal, but she looks every bit one of the handful of shooters in the league that can comfortably take and make enough shots off the dribble, off screening actions, and off awkward movements. Regardless of any efficiency dip, defenses are going to treat her as a consistent threat.
The Sparks will get healthy and add one of the most versatile frontcourt players in the league back into the fold in Stevens. That, mixed with their core continuing to gel, is going to make the team dangerous all year long. And a major reason why will be Lexie Brown, who will continue to assert herself as a crucial piece in Los Angeles’ puzzle.