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Candace Parker emerging as candidate for WNBA’s top defensive player

Sparks forward Candace Parker pulls down a rebound.
Sparks forward Candace Parker finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists in Friday’s win over over the Atlanta Dream.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

Candace Parker stops to consider the idea. Her? Defensive player of the year?

The two-time most valuable player seems in awe of the concept.

“I think that might be above the two I got at home, honestly,” Parker said of her two most-valuable-player awards after helping the Sparks to Friday night’s 93-85 overtime win against Atlanta. “Better late than never, I guess.”

Halfway through her 13th season in the WNBA, Parker is making a case for her first defensive player of the year honor. After 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists in the victory Friday, Parker led the league in defensive rebounds, averaging 8.0 per game, and ranked second in total rebounds, averaging 9.4 per game. Only Sylvia Fowles (9.7) was ahead of Parker, although the Minnesota Lynx center has appeared in only seven games because of injury. Parker’s defensive rebounding percentage (30.7%) is first in the league for players averaging more than 10 minutes, and her defensive rating is third among players averaging more than 28 minutes.

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With Parker as their anchor, the Sparks (9-3) have won six in a row entering Sunday’s game against the Dallas Wings.

Candace Parker scores to force overtime before drawing a key foul in the extra frame to help propel the Sparks to a 93-85 victory over the Atlanta Dream.

“She’s doing stuff in her 13th year that’s [like] the Candace in Year 2 maybe,” point guard Chelsea Gray said with a chuckle.

An pandemic-extended offseason helped Parker fine-tune her fitness before arriving in Florida for the WNBA’s quarantined season. She was coming off an injury-plagued year during which she played in just 22 games and averaged career lows in points, rebounds and blocks per game.

Parker immediately looked invigorated when she returned to the court in July. Announcers commented on how “spry” she looked. The former No. 1 overall pick showed her signature versatility, flirting with the league’s 10th triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a blowout win over the Lynx on Aug. 9, but continued to emphasize that the Sparks needed to improve on defense.

On Friday, Parker scored the tying basket to force overtime, but was more thrilled with a charge she drew in the extra frame. After stepping in front of the Dream’s Elizabeth Williams with the Sparks up by six, Parker celebrated by flailing her arms and legs like an excited child. She always makes it a goal to draw at least one charge a year, she said. That one was the “turning point,” Gray said, even though it didn’t show up in the stat sheet.

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Candace Parker scores 17 points in Sparks’ win over the Dream.

“What Candace is doing defensively this year cannot go unseen, unnoticed, and we can’t not talk about it anymore,” coach Derek Fisher said. “She was a catalyst for us defensively late in that fourth quarter and in overtime. That’s the difference between winning and losing. When your best players are leading by example, when it comes to those things, it lifts everybody else up to another level.”

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With Parker lurking in the post, the Sparks are second in the league in points allowed in the paint, trailing only first-place Seattle, and third in second-chance points allowed. The Sparks lead the league with 20 turnovers forced a game, which Fisher said affects the team’s rebounding game because opponents get fewer opportunities to shoot. But when there are opportunities to rebound, Parker makes it a point to be there.

“In the words of Pat Summitt,” Parker said, honoring her former college coach, “offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.”


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