Sparks players must decide who will be returning

The Sparks’ most recent marketing campaign features a photo of Candace Parker looking over her shoulder with the words: “She’ll be back! Will you?”

It’s a question that may be better suited for some of her teammates.

Parker, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in June, isn’t quite sure who will be joining her on the court next year since Ticha Penicheiro, Betty Lennox and Marie Ferdinand-Harris are free agents and Noelle Quinn is a restricted free agent. Meanwhile, Tina Thompson, the league’s all-time leading scorer, is considering retirement even though she has a year left on her contract.

In fact, the Sparks, who were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Seattle Storm, have only one starter who’s guaranteed to return: forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, who has two more years on her contract.

The Sparks finished the regular season with a lackluster 13-21 record, and Coach Jennifer Gillom said the team expects to get a high pick in the draft lottery in December. After losing Lisa Leslie to retirement, they could go after a true center who could outmuscle the likes of the Storm’s 6-foot-5 Lauren Jackson. Here are some of the players’ postseason thoughts from the Sparks’ exit interviews this week:

Marie Ferdinand-Harris

Considering the Sparks were playing for much of the season with a nine-woman roster, Ferdinand-Harris may be the only player who feels younger than she did at the beginning of the season.

“Physically I feel really good, the best I’ve felt,” Ferdinand-Harris said. “I’m 30, but I really do feel like I’m 23.”

Ferdinand-Harris, who averaged 8.9 points, said she hopes to return to the Sparks and has no plans to play overseas. So she should be well-rested come the spring after racking up 24.3 minutes a game this season.

Betty Lennox

The 11-year veteran had surgery in June on a torn meniscus. Two months later, she had to endure a different kind of pain after being told an ESPN analyst had questioned the Sparks’ decision to keep Lennox on the roster, calling her dispensable.

“It fired me up,” Lennox said. “I know what type of player I am.”

As for playing with the Sparks?

“I’m just going to keep my options open and go from there,” Lennox said. “I’m just focusing on me being 100% healthy. I know the league hasn’t seen the last of me.”

Ticha Penicheiro

The 13-year veteran point guard wants to return to the Sparks, in part, because she hates changes. It’s a sentiment that applies to all aspects of her life.

“When I go to a restaurant, if I like a dish, I pretty much order the same thing every time,” she said.

Penicheiro, the league’s all-time assist leader, said she would have stayed with the Sacramento Monarchs had the organization not folded in 2009, and now that she’s with the Sparks, she said she doesn’t see any reason to leave.

“I’m very consistent and I like consistency,” she said. “I enjoyed it, why would I change?”

But Penicheiro said she’s not entirely sure what will happen, and unlike most of her teammates who are jet-setting across the globe to play overseas, she’s allowing herself ample time to mull over her options.

“I just want to go lie on the beach somewhere and not do anything,” she said, laughing.

Noelle Quinn

She was raised in Los Angeles and wants to continue playing for the team she rooted for in her childhood.

“This is home,” Quinn said of the Sparks. “This is where I’ve dreamed to be as a little kid.”

The 25-year-old guard, who averaged 9.5 points, leaves next month to play overseas in Russia. Like a loving mother, rookie Andrea Riley offered Quinn one last piece of advice as she approached the door.

“Bring lots of warm coats,” Riley said.

Tina Thompson

It’s no secret that the league’s all-time leading scorer has been considering retirement for a while, and this season has been especially grueling for Thompson.

After Parker and Lennox were lost to injury, Thompson became the team’s go-to player, often playing center even though she’s naturally a forward.

Oh yeah, and she was injured.

Thompson played through pulled muscles in her calves, a sore Achilles’ tendon and a twisted ankle.

“It was hard, it was painful, I was hurting,” Thompson said. “I didn’t show that on the court.”

Thompson, who has made nine All-Star appearances and won four WNBA championships, said she could retire now and feel fulfilled. But she acknowledged that she also has a very compelling reason to return.

“I know with Candace coming back, it’s sure to be a good team,” she said.