By Dennis J. Freeman
Inglewood, CA-There are high expectations this season that Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach Joe Bryant has for the team. Adding depth in the low-post positions and bringing in an array of perimeter talent will make the Sparks top contenders for the WNBA title.
A run to the championship, however, will center on whether or not star forward Candace Parker can play the way she did when she won the WNBA Rookie of the Year and league MVP in 2008.
Parker was lost for the season last year when she went down with a shoulder injury. With Lisa Leslie’s retirement creating a large void at the center and forward positions, the Sparks missed Parker’s all-around versatility even more as they fell short of their ambition of a championship run.
This year is expected to be different.
Parker looks healthy and is raring to go. Bryant, the father of Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, knows a thing or two about handling star basketball players. Bryant adores the way Parker plays and certainly appreciates the skill level the former Tennessee star brings to the table. But Bryant wants to see Parker take the next step in elevating her game.
It’s hard to imagine what more that Parker can do on the basketball court after averaging 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds a game in two and a half seasons. Before she suffered her season-ending injury, Parker averaged just over 20 points a game through the first 10 contests, which is higher than the 18.5 points a game she put up in her rookie campaign.
What Bryant wants from Parker can’t be found in the stat sheet.
“She’s different. She can play. She makes the game come easy,” said Bryant at the Sparks media day at St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood. “I told her that she’s has to approach the game the way Kobe approaches the game. She has to come early. She has to stay late. She has to be able to be the goat. She has to be able to be the hero.
“She has to get the respect from her players. She’s that good. If you’re going to be a leader, you have to be able to take the good with the bad, the bitter with the sweet. I think she’s capable of handling those responsibilities.”
It’s been a whirlwind few seasons for Parker. She’s gotten married. She is now a mother. But that hasn’t slowed her game down. If anything, having a family has made the 6-foot-4, 175-pound Parker better. The first woman to actually dunk in basketball game, Parker is still plenty good enough to dominate opponents every night and carry the Sparks and the league on her back.
“I really feel that being a mother and being a wife could ever hold me back; it could only make me better,” Parker said. “I have something now that I have to make proud and that I have now something to go home to. Being a mother and a wife comes first, but it has never hindered my basketball playing abilities or my career, because I have great support.”
Parker will have some pretty good support on the court as well, especially in the low-block area. Ebony Hoffman (6-2, 215), rookie Jantel Lavender (6-4), LaToya Pringle (6-3, 162), Courtney Paris(6-4, 250), Tina Thompson (6-2, 178) and Chanel Mokango (6-5) will clear out space for Parker to do her thing.
Adding more size to the roster could be a difference-maker for the team this season, Parker said.
“We didn’t have a lot of size last year,” Parker said. “I played the five (center) last year with my frail 170 (pounds). It will allow all of us to play our natural positions. We need to continue to get better every day in practice.”