'She's ready': How rookie Zia Cooke has embraced the moment with the Sparks

Los Angeles Sparks guard Zia Cooke (1) drives to the basket against the Phoenix Mercury during a WNBA basketball game, Friday, May 19, 2023, in Los Angeles. Sparks won 94-71.(AP Photo/Jeff Lewis)

With one explosive dribble, Zia Cooke drove past her defender and elevated. There’s a reason why her Sparks teammates call their rookie fearless.

She was less than two minutes into her WNBA playing career, but Cooke already had shared the court with her childhood heroes, fought for two rebounds, and when she watched the ball fall through the hoop for her first points as a pro, she whipped her fist three times in celebration.

“This is something good,” she thought to herself.

The Sparks have something good in the 22-year-old out of South Carolina.

Cooke scored 14 points on five-of-six shooting in 15 minutes during her WNBA debut last week in front of a star-studded crowd of 10,396 at Arena.

The biggest home crowd since fans returned after the pandemic featured names such as Sparks owner Magic Johnson, tennis legend Billie Jean King and comedian Leslie Jones. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with the Sparks and Phoenix Mercury in their locker rooms before the game.

Cooke, whose youthful innocence is one of her best qualities in the eyes of her teammates, asked if the crowd was always like this. No, she was told.

She hopes the Sparks can make it the norm this year, she responded, then gave fans a reason to come back for Thursday’s 7 p.m. matchup with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces. The game will be televised on Spectrum SportsNet and CBS Sports Network.

"She’s not afraid of the big moment because she’s played in the big game," Sparks coach Curt Miller said. "She's ready."

Cooke was a four-year starter at South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks to three Final-Four appearances and a national championship in 2022. She led the team in scoring last season at 15.4 points per game while shooting a career-best 40.5% from the field and won the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the nation’s top shooting guard.

Picking 10th overall, the Sparks zeroed in on Cook’s two-way ability. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who watched five players get drafted last month — including No. 1 overall selection Aliyah Boston — always hopes for her players to go as high as possible, but in a league that’s only getting more difficult for rookies, fit is more important than draft standing. Cooke found the perfect situation in L.A.

“She’s being coached and coached to play, not really coached to sit on the bench and be a roster spot,” Staley said. “She’s primed to just receive her dream.”

The Sparks, who lost sharp-shooting wings Katie Lou Samuelson (pregnancy) and Stephanie Talbot (torn ACL), needed Cooke’s scoring punch. Off the court, veterans welcomed the rookie with open arms. They empower her to shoot freely and commend her gritty attitude on the court. The experience, even happily completing her rookie chores of carrying the team’s bags through the airport, has been the exact opposite of what she imagined.

“When you’re a rookie, you don’t know who you should be,” said Cooke, who thought she would be subject to rookie hazing and sitting at the end of the bench like in the movies. “But for [my teammates] to let me openly be myself, I’m super thankful for that.”

Sparks center Zia Cooke shoots against Phoenix Mercury Moriah Jefferson.

The Sparks know there will be growing pains for Cooke.

She made both of her three-pointers against Phoenix and teams will adjust to her shooting. Cooke wasn’t tasked with the full defensive responsibility against her shooting guard counterpart Diana Taurasi in the season opener as coaches shifted some of the burden to Lexie Brown, Karlie Samuelson and Layshia Clarendon.

Defense is where she needs to improve most, Cooke admitted after watching the game film. Staley told her to stop getting hung up on screens. Getting used to the physicality of the game comes with being a rookie, Cooke said.

Jumping from college to the WNBA is getting tougher. Only 15 of this year’s 36 WNBA draft picks made opening-day rosters. But for the rebuilding Sparks, who are trying to return to the postseason for the first time in two seasons under a first-year coach and general manager, Cooke’s early flashes provide a glimpse at a bright future.

“Very few rookies are superstars,” Miller said. “But this is certainly an important year for growth and learning for Zia as the rookie. We need to develop a young core along with our veterans.”

The veterans are Cooke's immediate family in the larger WNBA sisterhood. She heard stories about how close-knit players were, but being part of it first-hand blew her away. She hates to sound like a broken record, but this truly is a dream come true for the Toledo, Ohio, native.

During the Sparks’ preseason game against Phoenix, Cooke told Brittney Griner she watched the star center since childhood. Griner, whose return after being detained in Russia for 10 months is the league's biggest headline this year, responded Cooke was making her feel old.

A week later in the hallway in Arena after her WNBA debut, Cooke called to the two-time Olympic gold medalist. Good game, Cooke said. A wide smile split Griner’s face as she leaned in for a hug.

"Keep killing them, all right?” Griner said. “Just not us next time."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.