Te’a Cooper was in unfamiliar territory. In her second season in the WNBA, the Los Angeles Sparks guard went to the bathroom during a home game against the Seattle Storm. When she returned to the court, Te’a got a taste of something she wasn’t used to: nervousness.
“Everybody was over the tunnel part where we come in and they were screaming at the top of their lungs,” she recalls during the Sparks’ 2021 end-of-season media session.
“There was a whole bunch of people. That was the first time I got nervous. I just ran through and I just screamed. That was the craziest moment I felt in my entire life because I had never felt that. I don’t normally get nervous.”
“It’s just a beautiful thing that people are following women’s basketball as much as they do, and they’re having favorite players and getting the jerseys. Just to see that love, because I didn’t see it in the bubble, and then my college career got cut short. It’s a beautiful thing. It keeps growing. I’m so glad that the little girls are, they come with the whole uniform on. It’s beautiful.”
The 24-year-old Te’a Cooper has quickly become an instrumental part of the Sparks team after completing her second season in the WNBA. Calling it a second season isn’t quite doing it justice after Te’a spent her rookie season in the Florida bubble (a.k.a ‘wubble’) as part of the shortened 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I thought last year in the bubble, everything was new for everybody. It kind of was different all over for rookies or vets,” Te’a said during her Sparks 2021 season exit interview. “I think this year it was the same thing because it was our first season out of the bubble for a lot of us. A lot of people came back who didn’t play in the bubble. I think it was just new. My role changed and whether I was a rookie or a vet they made me feel comfortable and that they believed in me and that mattered to me.”
Te’a has not only become an important player on the court but also a face of the league, amounting 1.4 million Instagram followers and 1.5 million on TikTok. Those numbers will only continue to rise. That online popularity showed up in person when she came running out of that tunnel against the Storm.
She’s become such an inspiration for young children that in November 2021, the Sparks and Te’a hosted a TikTok dance workshop in Los Angeles. Fans of all ages had a chance to be taught by choreographers and members of the Sparks Crew while Te’a learned the dance for the first time with the attendees. The result:
“I feel like I was really supposed to be a dancer but somehow I fell in love with basketball,” Te’a said. “I always wanted to be a dancer and I finally had the opportunity to do that and it was super fun. Just go out there and be myself and I think that’s the best part of it for me … I wanna just see that they can be unapologetically themselves, free, open, enjoying their life.”
With a following like that, her performances on the court can come with an added pressure. In 2021, Te’a rose to the occasion.
“Just delivering when my name is called and being there for my teammates and my role changing and doing everything that I could. I think looking back I did better than I thought I did.”
Te’a wasn’t alone. A supporting cast, which included close friend and fellow guard Erica Wheeler, made a playoff push that fell just short.
“Erica and Te’a are essentially two players who showed up every night, had their uniforms on, and were ready to go regardless of how they performed,” Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher said during the team’s 2021 season exit interviews.
Erica and Te’a have an Atlanta connection, with Erica saying the two families are “super close.” While they are teammates and peers, there is an aspect of mentor and protege.
“I think Erica is a great player and person on and off the court. She literally is a big sister to everybody,” Te’a said of Erica during the 2021 Sparks exit interviews. “She’s just loving, fun, and works hard. She’s very motivated and determined. So just being around that and being around good people is a blessing.”
Their friendship off the court translated into on the court success in 2021. Te’a became one of the most important players in the Sparks’ season, producing on defense at one of the highest efficiencies in the league while growing into a scoring guard with 9.1 points per game.
“You know Te’a, she’s a ‘TikToker.’ She wants to have fun every moment of the day,” Erica said of Te’a during her 2021 Sparks season exit interview. “With that type of energy, you always want that around because she’s positive. She’s always smiling. So it’s super easy to play with someone who’s always smiling and never really has a care in the world.”
“Te’a’s always happy, I don’t know how she does it. She’s always finding a way to be happy and have fun. Super proud of her. For her second year to actually play in the WNBA, to be in market and not in the bubble, the way she stepped up in moments where she had 20 points, then played the best defending.”
Te’a looks at her off the court personality, and doesn’t make the connection directly to her on the court work.
“Honestly, I think in women’s basketball, when you are a part of things off the court, everyone tries to correlate it with basketball and it has nothing to do with basketball,” Te’a said after the 2021 season about her off-court brand.
“I think just learning how to ignore people’s opinions and handling your business on and off the court and just being secure that you know what you’re doing. They all have a great way of doing that, whether they have other jobs, families, whatever the case may be, they do it all. Just seeing that and knowing that it’s possible, I think is a great example for the youth and me, and I’m super excited for what’s to come.”
Between seasons, Te’a goes extra steps to improve her game, finding ways to play against other high-level players, including some men, which she attributes to getting her pace of play faster. While some players go to Europe, Te’a finds this method keeps her most fresh for the next year.
“I play with men a lot. They speed me up. Their speed and quickness and vision and how quick their reads are, I think that will prepare you if you go overseas or not. I still can play pickup, I still can work out,” Te’a said during the Sparks’ 2021 exit interviews.
“I think that having the time after a full season and being able to work on individual things. Like specifically I get to be in the gym and spend time with myself, I think that is very beneficial. I don’t have to deal with injuries, I can do a lot of treatment, I can get my body right. It’s a lot of benefits, and honestly I think that staying ready is just being in the gym, whether it’s individual, 5-on-5, 4-on-4, 3-on-3, situational, it’s just a lot of things you can do.”
Te’a comes from a basketball family. Her brother, Sharife, who is also a guard, went to Auburn and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.
Ahead of his first game for the Hawks, Te’a was ecstatic to see her little brother. And in Te’a fashion, she had the fashion side of things all ready to go.
“Super excited,” she said during her 2021 season exit interview. “When we played in Atlanta, I had a chance to get in the gym with him and we was working out. Just to see him playing and being out there with him it’s so heartwarming. I’m so excited, I can’t believe it. I got my whole fit planned out for the first game.”
Te’a has an eye for fashion. It’s not just something you’ll notice on Instagram or TikTok or upon her arrival to Sparks’ games. She has a specific look on the court. One leg of her shorts is pulled up, becoming her trademark look.
“I’m not girly, but I literally cannot wear no basketball shorts to my knees,” Te’a told The Athletic. “Like, the Soulja Boy shorts just wasn’t for me at the time. I was like, you know what? I’m finna just tuck these in my little spandex, make them how I want them to look, and that’s just how it’s gon’ be. So I would tuck my jersey in because it was all thick on my shoulders. No, I have nice shoulders. I’m tucking my jersey in. And I have nice legs, so I’m tucking my shorts. I’m not wearing this boys’, baggy-jersey uniform. … Cut my shorts, please.”
That extra bit of swag in her style has led to swag in her game, something that’s been successful for Te’a and the Sparks in her early years of her WNBA career.
Getting herself to the next level also takes a next-level type of focus. Te’a in fact tries to keep her focus away from basketball on game days.
“If I wake up and I’m thinking too much, I think I’ve gotta find something to forget about playing basketball,” she explained during her 2021 season exit interview. “When I wake up and I’m like ‘OK it’s a regular day,’ I’m good.”
The ceiling is high for the young up-and-coming star. Let’s take a look at how Te’a has gotten here.
Te’a went to McEachern High School where she had a prolific basketball career. She won three Georgia 6A state titles and was co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-America game in 2015. This helped earn her the 6th ranking in her position and 12th overall rank in the 2015 class by ESPN.
College was quite the experience for Te’a, who went to Tennessee for one season in 2015-16, before transferring to South Carolina and then to Baylor.
At Tennessee, Te’a teamed up with 2021 WNBA champion Diamond DeShields. Tennessee made the Elite Eight of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, but then that offseason, Te’a tore her left ACL. The injury forced her to sit out her sophomore year as a redshirt.
She transferred to South Carolina after her redshirt year to play for Dawn Staley’s 2017 NCAA champions. Te’a helped the Gamecocks in her one season with South Carolina, scoring 11.9 points per game to lead the team in scoring. Te’a moved to Baylor the following year, according to The Athletic, after playing her junior season at shooting guard rather than at point, a role she played at Baylor.
In Texas, Te’a took a major step forward, scoring more, shooting more, hitting three-pointers at 41.5 percent from 28.9 percent the prior year, all while leading the team in steals. She never got a chance to play for the national championship at Baylor as the season came to an end before the NCAA Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2020 WNBA Draft, Te’a was selected 18th (the sixth pick of the second round) by the Phoenix Mercury. But just one month after being picked, she was cut by the team. Due to the pandemic, rosters were cut down to 12 without training camps and Te’a was a casualty of this.
Being a rookie in the WNBA is hard enough as it is. Fortunately for Te’a, Sparks guard Kristi Toliver opted out of the bubble season, opening the door for Te’a.
“We were surprised that she had dropped to 18,” Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher told The Athletic. “She wasn’t even part of our planning. But, I mean, she would have gotten drafted at 20 by us had she made it to 20. So the reality that she was available in that type of situation, it was a no-brainer for us.”
The Sparks first game was fittingly against the Mercury, and Te’a scored 10 points off the bench with two steals and a pair of assists as the Sparks beat the Mercury 99-76.
The Sparks went 15-7 in the shortened 2020 season, finishing third in the standings before losing in the second round of the playoffs to the seventh-seeded Connecticut Sun, 73-59.
For Te’a, and everyone else, the bubble season was a whirlwind of more than just basketball. The one-of-a-kind rookie season was a relatively successful one for Te’a. She averaged 7.0 points per game, 2.0 assists, shot 45.1 percent from the field while snatching 0.7 steals per game.
During the bubble season, Te’a brought the laughs too, captured by the Sparks media team.
Thanks to Te’a performing well in her rookie season, she earned a new contract with the team during the offseason.
In her sophomore season, Te’a began to take on a more important role for LA. She wasn’t a regular starter but was regularly effective, becoming a more confident player all around.
The full 2021 season saw Te’a involved in 31 games compared to 2020 in the season prior. She would have likely played in 32 games but was suspended for one game after she ran onto the court during an altercation between Sparks and Minnesota Lynx players. Te’a was in the check-in area, waiting to enter the game when the altercation broke out. Because she entered the court, she received the one-game ban.
Her defense was proving to be a great strength for the Sparks, making Te’a an even more valuable player for the team in her second year.
“Coop is one of our better on ball defenders,” Derek Fisher told Silver Screen & Roll. “We thought that Coop would be able to do a good job on the basketball with ball pressure and activity, and we guessed right, I guess. … we’re really thankful that she’s with us and can bring that force on the defensive end.”
Te’a brings a boost of energy on defense. It’s all gas, no brakes for her.
“My mindset was and — anytime I’m on the floor — is to be purposeful with what I’m doing, try to stay focused on every little detail, and give everything I’ve got and just exhaust myself,” she said.
In 2021, Te’a averaged 1.5 steals per 36 minutes of play, keeping a similar mark to that of her rookie season in the bubble. Te’a recorded several career highs in 2021 in points (26), rebounds (6, twice), assists (6), all while adding seven more multi-steal games to her two from her rookie season.
“I think Erica and Te’a did a tremendous job trying to figure out how to navigate and run a team that was constantly changing and evolving, and didn’t always have the ammunition, the fire power to do sometimes what you need done as a perimeter player, as a guard when you’re trying to run and manage a team,” head coach Derek Fisher said, reflecting on the 2021 season during the Sparks’ exit interviews.
“It’s important to know and understand what you’re working with and how to make sure you’re in a position to be successful. So I think they both did a lot of good things and there are both areas for growth.”
“… To put that work in the offseason to get better in terms of their individual games but also continuing to build our relationship, our communication, make sure that I’m being clear on what it is I’d like to see from them at the position. But also continuing to empower them to trust their instincts and rely on the work they put in. I think the players are excited to do that this offseason and they’re both really motivated to be better for their team than they were this year.”
When the season was on the line for the Sparks, Te’a stepped up. Needing a win on the final day of the season to make the playoffs, Te’a had arguably her best game of her young career, posting 24 points, including three three-pointers, six assists, one rebound and one steal in 39 minutes of play. But her efforts couldn’t take the Sparks over the line, as the team was eliminated from playoff contention, losing 87-84 to the Dallas Wings.
For Te’a to put up such a big performance with the lights shining the brightest showed the Sparks they can put their trust in Te’a in important moments.
“I think that all the stuff that we went through and for us to still have a shot at the playoffs, I think it speaks volumes,” she said in her 2021 exit interview. “Literally, so much happened and for us to still have a chance or an opportunity up to the end. That speaks a lot for us and we have so much support.”
She’ll have a chance to play a big part in another big game when the Sparks open the 2022 WNBA season against the reigning champion Chicago Sky.
During her time in college, Te’a became a more confident shooter, taking more shots gradually while improving her shooting percentage and points per game over the three seasons for three schools. As previously mentioned, the three-point shooting is the starkest difference as she moved to Baylor for her final season of college hoops.
Her regular season numbers across her first two seasons show a level of consistency that could be replicated, and even improved upon, in her third season and onward. While her shooting percentage dropped off in her second year, Te’a shooting more is indicative of her confidence in herself and her bigger role within the team in year two.
Per 36 minutes, the consistency shows itself even more when it comes to her defense. With 1.5 steals per 36 minutes played, marginally improving from 1.4 in her rookie season, Te’a showed her defensive abilities were no flash in the pan during the bubble season.
Per game, Te’a showed improvement in points per game, going from 7 to 9.1. But surprisingly, her assists trailed off from 2 per game to 1.4. She did have an uptick in steals per game by .2, which is much more than what comes out on paper due to the 20-game sample size that was her first season.
In a more in depth look at her stats, Across The Timeline shows Te’a among her WNBA peers. During her second season, Te’a shot much more per game, which brought her into the upper tiers of field goals made and attempted, while only barely playing above average minutes. Her three-pointer improved as well, becoming one of the below average players to well above average in just one season.
Being an elite defender, Te’a will take pride in her defensive statistics, which rank above average in her second seasons in steals, blocks and turnovers. Her slightly above average points make for a good predictor for an upward trend for Te’a going forward.
On offense, Te’a drives to the basket with various techniques. Watch and learn right here with Queen Ballers Club’s analysis of Te’a Cooper’s power drive:
Te’a can also pop three-pointers, something she’s getting more and more confident in through two seasons in the league. While it’s not her biggest part of her game, she can bring the long ball out to get some much-needed points.
To be an elite defender, Te’a has to bring tons of energy. To do so on a nightly basis in the WNBA season is a difficult task and she’s up for it. Maintaining the level of intensity that Te’a plays at is not easy. She picks pockets and frustrates superstar opponents all the while sprinting around the court to transition the team from defense to offense.
Being a young player in the WNBA, finding consistency in play is a difficult thing. Opponents are some of the best players in the game and can adjust to any player’s style. Te’a has adjusted incredibly well to the WNBA, and if she finds herself with more consistent minutes — and even a starting spot — she’ll take her game up even more than she already has over her first two seasons.
“I think just playing free and believing in myself and just really this offseason focusing on being consistent and finding ways to stay consistent throughout the season,” Te’a said ahead of her third season in the WNBA. “I think that was it for me, being consistent. There were ups and downs. Finding consistency even when everything is all over the place you never know but still finding consistency in myself.”
Te’a is coming close with her jumper. The backcourt for the Sparks will need plenty of production offensively, and if Te’a can begin to bring more of a shooting prowess from behind the arc and in the mid-range, the Sparks could quickly become a dangerous team to play against.
The sky’s the limit for Te’a but first she’ll have to make the leap into her third WNBA season with the Sparks. Her trajectory could mean this year is her biggest one yet.
“I think Te’a can make a big jump from year two to year three. But to be frank the year in the bubble doesn’t really represent what it’s like to be in the WNBA and I think Te’a found more of that out this past season when you’re traveling from city to city, playing in busy buildings, playing against different personnel this season with more players playing compared to the bubble with players who opted out,” Derek Fisher said.
“I think she’s poised to make another big jump next season, and hopefully we’ll be able to do our part to make sure our team is constructed to allow for all of our players to be significantly better and still find ways to play together as a team.”
In the big picture, there are still a lot of unknowns for Te’a and for the Sparks as a whole, so for now she will focus on what’s right in front of her: year three.
“Being healthy for one,” Te’a said. “And just continuing to believe in Fish and his plan and vision. I think we’re going to be perfectly fine because what he has in place and what he’s trying to get us all to connect on is great. So I feel like once we do that and connect on all cylinders, we’re gonna be all right.”
Up next, learn more about her Sparks teammate Nneka Ogwumike.
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