They were both Top 10 picks in the 2022 and ‘23 WNBA drafts, fresh off successful SEC basketball careers at storied programs. They then both became important components to the 2023 Los Angeles Sparks.
In the frontcourt, it was second year small forward Rae Burrell. In the backcourt, it was rookie shooting guard Zia Cooke. Both young players came on strong at the end of the 2023 season, but they started as opponents long before they were teammates.
Cooke played under former WNBA star and current NCAA powerhouse head coach, Dawn Staley at South Carolina. Burell played for the legendary eight-time NCAA Champion Tennessee Lady Vols, leading to the two facing off for three seasons in the highly contested SEC.
The LA Sparks felt Cooke’s impact instantly as she scored 14 points against the Phoenix Mercury in her WNBA debut. Garnering herself the nickname ‘The Chef’ among fans, Cook turned the heads of LA media members and fans alike.
“The Sparks have something good in the 22-year-old out of South Carolina,” The LA Times’ wrote on the rookie guard after opening night.
While many out west are just getting a taste, ask any basketball fan in Columbia, SC about the rookie guard, they will identify her with one word.
Cooke played at South Carolina from 2019-23, a four-year span where her team lost just one home game and made three consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances. To top it off, South Carolina won the 2022 NCAA National Championship.
She had so much success, that when local television sports reporter Matt Dowell asked Cooke about the one home loss, she couldn’t even recollect it, much to the chagrin of her college coach. But can anyone actually blame her?
Similarly, Burrell led Tennessee to three NCAA Tournaments, the only year excluded being in 2020 when the NCAA canceled it due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She recorded over 1,000 career points, was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll and shot 34 percent from the 3-point line over four years. She would utilize that strong shooting ability in 2023.
The two faced off against each other four times in college, and have used that competitive edge to gel in well with the Sparks.
As Los Angeles struggled with injuries late in the season, Burrell and Cooke became ‘spark plugs’ to the team’s success. Burrell averaged 9.4 points and shot a blistering 54.5 percent from the field the last five games of the season. In three consecutive games, she broke her own career-high in scoring, highlighted by 18 points and four made threes on the road against the New York Liberty.
The WNBA is the most competitive professional league in sports. With just 144 active roster spots, players are constantly jockeying for one. At the start of the season, Burrell battled to maintain her spot, but took full advantage when her time came to shine, something noticed by Sparks Head Coach Curt Miller.
“Rae was ready when her number was called,” Coach Miller said. “Her strong finish this season is a credit to her work ethic, positive personality and allowing the game to slow down for her.”
Cooke provided a similar fiery offensive punch. When Los Angeles was down 19 points in the season finale against the Seattle Storm, Cooke ‘cheffed’ up a masterpiece performance. Poetically, she tied her scoring career high from opening night with 14 points, helping the Sparks complete the comeback victory and end the season with a win.
“She’s the future, it’s rare to come in and see a rookie who already knows how to be a pro,” seven-time All-Star Nneka Ogwumike said of Cooke. “She had so much growth this season, and I can’t wait to see how much better she gets.”
On draft night, N. Ogwumike embraced Cooke with a hug moments after WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert called her name. After her first of three consecutive career-high nights, Burrell had her first interview postgame with Sparks sideline reporter Nikki Kay. In similar fashion, veterans excitedly embraced Burrell following her interview. Both interactions served as those infamous ‘welcome to the league moments’.
From those ‘moments’, to their late season on court success, one thing has become abundantly clear: these former SEC opponents turned professional teammates made a huge impact on the 2023 Sparks.