Sports

Without Candace Parker, Sparks take on Seattle in opener Saturday

Sparks open the season at Seattle without Candace Parker

Candace Parker's absence will be a challenge for the Sparks for as long as the two-time most valuable player is out.

It will take the entire team pulling together to fill the vacuum and stay in contention for the WNBA championship until their star returns.

Like so many WNBA players, Parker also plays overseas and she decided rest was paramount after playing in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

The Sparks understood, and hope Parker will return at the end of July — about halfway through the season — to lead the team again.

"Candace does a lot for us. She's a huge offensive player for us. She's arguably one of the best players in the world," said center Jantel Lavender, who is expected to have an increased workload while Parker is away. "Not having her is obviously going to be a scoring difference. But everybody is going to work together and we're going to fill that void as a team."

The Sparks won their two exhibition games, but the real test starts Saturday when they play at Seattle in the regular-season opener. The Sparks' home opener at Staples Center is June 14.

Last season Parker led the Sparks in scoring (19.4 per game) and assists (4.3) and was tied for the team lead in rebounds (7.1).

The Sparks also will begin the season without starting point guard Kristi Toliver, who will be playing for the Slovakian team in the EuroBasketball tournament in early June.

Sparks first-year Coach Brian Agler, who guided Seattle last season, is focused on keeping his team together until Parker and Toliver return.

"The dynamics of women's basketball is that because they play year-around, that sometimes during the first of the year they take breaks and get rested, get fresh. She's not the first one to do it," Agler said of Parker. "That being said, there's uncertainty on when she'll be back. You can't dwell on that. You sort of have to focus on the people that you have, and that's sort of what we've done."

Then Agler rattled off the names of forward Nneka Ogwumike, centers Lavender and Marianna Tolo and guards Alana Beard and Erin Phillips as players who can lead the Sparks.

Last season the Sparks finished fourth in the Western Conference with a 16-18 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Phoenix. The Sparks fired Carol Ross last July and General Manager Penny Toler took over as interim coach.

Still, expectations remain high for the Sparks this season, with a survey of league general managers picking them to finish in second place in the West behind Minnesota.

Agler won a WNBA championship in 2010 with Seattle and says it's "important that you talk that way in L.A., about championships."

"My approach is to just really narrow the focus and work on the day-by-day aspect," Agler said. "Try to get better. Study your team. Try to figure out how you can become better, putting the people in the right places. And then focus on the next game. And then if you stay healthy, you have the talent and you keep improving, then you'll put yourself in position to compete for one."

broderick.turner@latimes.com

Twitter: @BA_Turner

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