Expectations for a No. 1 overall draft pick often exceed reality. That’s not the case for Sparks forward Candace Parker. She was better.
Tonight, one day after accepting WNBA rookie of the year honors, Parker is expected to be named the league’s most valuable player. The announcement will come during Game 2 of the WNBA finals in San Antonio and it will make her the first WNBA player to win both awards, regardless of the year.
It also will put her in an even loftier group: only two NBA players have won both awards in the same season -- Wilt Chamberlain in 1959-60 and Wes Unseld in 1968-69.
“It would mean a lot to me, playing in that highest level and actually winning the MVP award,” Parker said Thursday morning in an interview with The Times, not long after being named the top rookie.
The former star for the Tennessee Lady Vols averaged 18.5 points (fourth best in the league), 9.5 rebounds (best in the league) and 2.3 blocks (second best) during the regular season. Only teammate Lisa Leslie, a three-time MVP, averaged more blocked shots. Parker also shot 52.3% from the field and averaged 3.4 assists.
“She’s pulling those type of numbers with great people around her,” said Sparks General Manager Penny Toler. “I know people say that’s easier, but it isn’t. Sometimes, if you have a rookie, they may sit back and say, ‘Well, let me just do the minimum.’ But she never sat back, she did as much as she could to try to help us win.”
Parker, 22, said she was proudest of her rebounding, an aspect of her game that has been reinforced by every coach she has had, from her father, Larry, to Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, to Sparks Coach Michael Cooper.
“With rebounding, you get extra possessions, you finish possessions and it’s important to your team,” said Parker, who credited Cooper for giving her the chance to grow as a player.
“He never lowered the bar,” she said. “He always continued to raise it and I think that’s why I always continued to be successful this year. . . . Sometimes, coaches have a really tight rein, but he let me make mistakes and grow from them. . . . I’m better because of that.”
From the season’s opening tip, she proved she wasn’t a typical rookie, scoring 34 points in her first game, the most by a WNBA player in her debut. She also contributed 12 rebounds and eight assists. Two games later, she totaled 16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, five steals and six blocks in a double-overtime loss to Indiana, becoming the first WNBA player to total at least five in each of those statistical categories.
She gained national attention at the end of June when she scored off slam dunks in consecutive games, joining Leslie as the only player to dunk in a WNBA game and the first to dunk twice. She never attempted another one.
“There were lots of other chances,” said the team’s co-owner, Kathy Goodman. “I kind of liked the idea that she didn’t feel like she needed to keep doing it.”
She combined for 71 points in back-to-back victories over Phoenix and Houston in early July then helped the U.S. women’s team win gold at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Parker, who is enjoying her first extended break from basketball in two years, never felt like she was running out of gas, but she was wary of injuries.
During the NCAA tournament, Parker suffered a separated left shoulder, which required her to wear a brace throughout the WNBA season.
“I heard about rookies getting injured during the middle to end of the season,” Parker said. “My main thing was just to stay strong and do as much as I could to prevent that.”
After returning from the Olympics, she helped the Sparks win five of their final seven regular-season games, then helped them topple Seattle in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Though her shooting percentage dropped during the postseason as she increasingly became the focus of defenses, she found other ways to contribute, totaling a season-high 17 rebounds in a one-point, last-second loss to San Antonio in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
The Sparks were then eliminated by another close loss in Game 3.
“We expected a lot of great things out of Candace,” Toler said. “Did we expect rookie of the year? We knew it was seriously possible. If she wins MVP, I think we all have to say, ‘Wow.’ ”