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Parker remains a work in progress

Times Staff Writer

Smush Parker will start another game at guard for the Lakers tonight, 137 consecutive and counting.

Few would have predicted he’d still be around, much less starting, when the Lakers signed him out of relative obscurity two summers ago. His play over the next few months will determine if he comes back next season.

An unrestricted free agent come July, Parker has performed at an improved level recently, averaging enough points (16.5) over the last two games to make Coach Phil Jackson acknowledge, “He’s playing much better.”

There’s still plenty of evaluating to be done. Parker is averaging 11.5 points, matching his average last season. His assists are down from 3.7 to 2.3 a game, as are his minutes (33.8 last season to 30.9), steals (1.7 to 1.4) and field-goal percentage, slightly (44.7% to 44.2%).

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“We keep looking at the whole quality of Smush’s game -- his leadership on the court, his defense, the things that he does that help other teammates get into their game,” Jackson said. “His defense, which includes steals and up-the-court pressure, that’s all areas that Smush has a great opportunity, a great potential. He’s still going game-to-game working on that.”

Parker, 25, was highly ineffective earlier in the season, so much so that Orlando Magic Coach Brian Hill ripped his team when Parker scored 18 points in the third quarter of the Lakers’ 106-93 victory over the Magic in December. “We can’t be giving the Smush Parkers of the league quarters like that,” Hill said.

Jackson revealed Thursday that Parker, in the final year of a contract that pays him $798,000 this season, was bothered by contract issues at the start of the season. He makes significantly less than several Lakers guards, none of whom are starters: Aaron McKie ($2.5 million), Shammond Williams ($1.75 million), Sasha Vujacic ($974,000) and even rookie backup Jordan Farmar ($939,000).

Parker also noticed when forward Brian Cook signed a three-year, $10.5-million contract extension in October, Jackson said.

“I think there was a period this fall when he was curious about the fact that Cookie got re-signed to a contract, there were some things going on, just the basic understanding of, ‘Hey, this is what the NBA’s about. This is the rules of our game.’

“He’s making a salary that’s by and large four times or five times less than a person that starts in that position. It may not be recompense or reward for what he’s doing for it, but yet it’s a valuable opportunity for him in the future that bodes really well.”

*

Center Kwame Brown, out since Dec. 31 because of a severely sprained left ankle, briefly practiced.

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“He’s complaining, but that’s not unusual,” Jackson said. “He came out a little bit and dunked the ball and then went off the floor, said it hurt. His live-ball activity is a little bit limited still.”

Brown won’t play tonight against Indiana and probably won’t play Saturday against Washington, Jackson said.

*

Shaquille O’Neal was in a complimentary mood Thursday afternoon, briefly sending kind words toward Kobe Bryant when asked if Miami guard Dwyane Wade should be the league’s most valuable player.

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“Gilbert [Arenas] is playing well. Kobe is playing well. So, you know, [Wade’s] name has to be mentioned with those names,” O’Neal told Fox Sports Radio’s Jorge Sedano.

TONIGHT

at Indiana, 4 (tape delay, 5:30, Channel 9)

Site -- Conseco Fieldhouse.

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Radio -- 570; 1330.

Records -- Lakers 28-18; Pacers 24-21.

Record vs. Pacers -- 1-0.

Update -- The Pacers are 4-2 since an eight-player trade with Golden State that brought them Mike Dunleavy, Todd Murphy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod.

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com


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