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Odyssey Sims steps up her game in first season with Sparks

Sometimes the "right" fit actually isn't. Consider Los Angeles Sparks guard Odyssey Sims, who is from Dallas, went to Baylor, and was drafted No. 2 by the Tulsa Shock in 2014. The Shock then became the Wings when they moved to Dallas in 2016, so Sims was back in her hometown. Worked out perfectly.

Except ... not really. Sims had three good seasons with the Shock/Wings, starting almost 90 percent of the games she played and averaging 15.5 points.

Yet Sims wasn't developing all aspects of her game. She didn't know it at the time, but acknowledges it now. And in her first season with the Sparks, she's going to the WNBA Finals.

"I have to let this all soak in," Sims said after scoring a team-high 22 points as Los Angeles beat the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 Sunday to sweep their semifinal series. "This is a great opportunity. I have some of the greatest teammates I've ever played with."

That was a big part of what the Sparks were counting on when they traded for Sims in February. Los Angeles had lost veteran guard Kristi Toliver to free agency. The Sparks needed another impact perimeter player who could score.

Sims fit that bill. But while she is a good on-ball defender, she has not been known to maximize her talent on defense. And the Sparks happen to have two of the best guards in the business at doing that: Alana Beard and Essence Carson.

But would Sims, who turned 25 in July, be open to paying close attention to the Sparks veterans and emulating them? Or was she already set in her ways: a good scorer who sometimes didn't stay engaged on defense? We've seen the answer.

"Odyssey has been really coachable," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "I've been pleased with how she's accepted that."

Carson had injuries that forced her to miss 10 games this season. In late July, Sims moved into the starting lineup to stay.

"She's very inquisitive, she wants to know things," Beard said. "And I respect that. Odyssey was a go-to player in Tulsa, and for her to come into this system and allow us to help teach her and coach her, it says a lot about her as an individual and how much she wants to grow."

It wasn't easy. Sims was like a lot of young players who've had success but are faced with different demands. She was at the Sparks' training camp in its entirety, and Agler paid close attention to everything she did. It got to her at times.

"Everyone has their comfort zone, and once you're in it, you want to stay there," Sims said. "I think here, Brian has pulled me out of my comfort zone in a positive way.

"When I first got here, I told him, 'I'm not a great help-side defender.' I know sometimes when the ball is reversed or it's on the opposite side of me, I get stagnant. I don't move. I'm aware of it because I watch so much film. He holds us accountable, and I've been working on it."

As she studied even more video, she confronted other things, too.

"When I made a turnover, I wouldn't get back," she said. "I wasn't hustling for loose balls."

But even as she saw these mistakes, hearing about them wasn't fun. Agler could sense that Sims was sometimes caught between understanding his critiques and being frustrated by them. He encouraged her to talk to other players about it -- including guard Chelsea Gray, who went through some similar growing pains last year when she came to the Sparks.

"Chelsea was great. She said, 'Listen, learn from it, but don't let it get to you,'" Sims said. "I realized it was only about trying to help me get better. Take it, use it, and keep it moving."

As it happens, the 2016 trade to get Gray from Connecticut also ended up helping the Sparks get Sims. The 2017 draft pick (No. 4) that Los Angeles got from the Sun, along with Gray, was the big chip that the Sparks sent to Dallas for Sims.

The two deals meant the Sparks gave up post player Jonquel Jones to the Sun and Allisha Gray to the Wings, and both have been very good for those teams. Jones was named the WNBA Most Improved Player this season, and Gray was Rookie of the Year.

But you have to give talent to get talent, and the Sparks -- who for years seemed to struggle to find the right guard combination -- would not be the team they are without Gray or Sims. Gray came on strong as the season progressed last year and played an important role in the playoffs. Sims is doing the same thing this year.

Sims averaged 9.6 points in the regular season. However, since the start of August, she has averaged 16.5 points over 14 games, including three playoff games.

"She's given us a different dimension," Agler said. "Especially her ability to break down defenses."

Sims got better with each playoff game against Phoenix, shooting 9-of-12 from the field in the series clincher.

"You want to take Sims away from her left hand, but she's very crafty," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said of the southpaw. "Once she goes downhill, she has really good body control and can finish at the rim."

The phrase "going downhill," of course, has become basketball parlance for penetrating and attacking the basket. The 5-foot-8 Sims is adept at that, and it has become a bigger part of her game with the Sparks. Last year with the Wings, she took almost three times as many 3-pointers as she did this year.

As Sims continues to refine her offense, she will likely improve the balance between her perimeter prowess and her ability to penetrate -- and become the defensive player she now aspires to be. All of which is great for the Sparks.

"I couldn't ask to be in a better place, on the court or off the court," Sims said. "I love it here. I am taking it all in and living in the moment. I wake up every day, and I'm ready to come to work and get better."

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