Sparks, new GM Raegan Pebley face critical offseason with No. 2 draft pick

TCU head coach Raegan Pebley gestures during a game against Oklahoma on Jan. 31, 2023.

The Sparks' rebuild has added another contractor.

New general manager Raegan Pebley was introduced to reporters Tuesday as the latest piece of an expanded Sparks front office tasked with breaking the franchise out of its longest playoff drought. The team’s brain trust, which includes head coach Curt Miller, former general manager Karen Bryant, who will step back into a more business-oriented role, and assistant general manager Eli Horowitz, has three months until its next potentially franchise-changing moment.

The 2024 WNBA draft.

The Sparks hold the No. 2 and 12 picks in the April 15 draft that could be one of the deepest in recent memory if some of the top collegiate stars declare. Caitlin Clark (Iowa), Cameron Brink (Stanford), Paige Bueckers (Connecticut) and Angel Reese (Louisiana State) are just some of the draft-eligible prospects who could still return to college.

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Whomever the Sparks choose at No. 2 has the chance to be “really foundational,” Pebley said during a virtual news conference.

As a longtime college coach, most recently at Texas Christian from 2014 to 2023, and a former TV analyst for the Dallas Wings, Pebley brings a well-rounded resume to the Sparks, but being a WNBA general manager is new territory for the former third-round pick in the league's inaugural draft.

“It's only my journey that has propelled me with the confidence and the skills to be able to step into this space,” Pebley said. “I think when it comes to the basketball piece, I love the analytics, I understand analytics. I understand how one thing leads into another, and that you can't just look at decisions only through an analytics lens. I think I bring a critical and supportive eye. I think I can be a connective tissue as well because of my experience as a coach and as a leader and as a former player in this league, and just continue to support the culture that we're working to build.”

In the era of the WNBA superteam, the Sparks have been searching for another franchise player since Candace Parker bolted in 2021. Parker’s departure in free agency, along with point guard Chelsea Gray’s, left forward Nneka Ogwumike to keep the franchise together during the end of Derek Fisher’s tumultuous tenure as head coach and general manager. The Sparks missed the playoffs in each of Fisher’s final two years, and Miller’s hire in October 2022 was seen as a new era, both on and off the court.

First, the franchise would split the general manager and coach duties, signaling improved infrastructure behind the scenes. Bryant, who advised on the search that brought Miller to L.A., served as general manager last year.

“It was always KB's vision and plan to find the perfect fit in the GM, the standalone GM, to allow her to continue to serve the entire organization on a lot of other projects,” Miller said Tuesday. “So I've spoken to many candidates over my 14 months with the Sparks, and Raegan was the perfect person at the perfect time.”

Miller and Pebley were assistants at Colorado State from 1999 to 2001 before Pebley got her first head coaching job at Utah State in 2003. She took Fresno State to the NCAA tournament in both of her seasons at the helm from 2012 to 2014 before moving to TCU, where the Horned Frogs went to the WNIT four times in her first five years. Pebley stepped down at the end of the 2021-22 season when TCU finished 6-22.

After a year spent with her family and on the sideline as a TV analyst, Pebley said she sought advice from Brad Stevens about how to navigate the jump from coaching to the front office after the former Boston Celtics head coach moved into a role as president of basketball operations.

Sparks coach Curt Miller looks on during a game against the Minnesota Lynx on June 11, 2023.
The Sparks went 17-23 in 2023 in Curt Miller's first season as coach of the team. (Abbie Parr / Associated Press)

“The integrity of who I am is to try to be a servant leader, to try to show up in spaces and recognize where the people I'm leading and serving, where their needs are,” Pebley said. “Sometimes that looks different from one day to the next. This is going to look different from being a coach now to being in the front-office space. But just the opportunity to be in the WNBA, be in L.A., who are leaders in that space, was something that I just could not pass up.”

Although the Sparks are one of three remaining original WNBA franchises, the three-time champions have not felt like trendsetters in the rapidly progressing league. After one year under the new regime, the team is still rebuilding its player experience infrastructure that includes practice amenities and housing.

The Sparks practiced at El Camino College last season but still had scheduling hiccups that moved them to Galen Center or Arena. This season, their fist five home games will be played at Walter Pyramid in Long Beach as Arena undergoes renovations.

The franchise turmoil has turned the Sparks into an afterthought for most top free agents in recent years. With more solid footing with Pebley, the team can start negotiating contracts on Jan. 21 and make free-agent signings official on Feb. 1.

“Obviously L.A.'s got some work to do, but my first priority has been to really just try to build some relationships with the people that are currently in the organization and that includes the players,” Pebley said. “It would be a mistake to just focus on the free agents, obviously that does demand attention, and it's getting our attention, but I want to put first things first. That's this current L.A. Sparks locker room.”

The Sparks went 17-23 in Miller’s first year, fighting through injuries and long-term absences to key players. Sharpshooters Katie Lou Samuelson (pregnancy) and Stephanie Talbot (knee injury) were ruled out before the season. Guard Lexie Brown, a key holdover from the end of the Fisher era, missed the majority of the season because of an illness.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.