Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker has a WNBA championship, a WNBA Finals MVP, two season MVPs and a rookie of the year award. But she said the honor she got Thursday was, in many ways, as special as any she's ever received. Parker was named the WNBA defensive player of the year.
It wasn't just that, at age 34 and in her 13th WNBA season, she still found a way to improve her game. It was also because the award reminded her of beloved mentor Pat Summitt, the late Tennessee women's basketball coach who passed away in June 2016, a few months before Parker won her WNBA title with the Sparks.
"We all know the first thing that popped to my mind was Coach Summitt," said Parker, who led the way on Summitt's last two NCAA title teams in 2007 and '08. "I was excited for rebounding this year; that was heavy on my mind. She always was on me about rebounding.
"Her phrase still rings in my head: 'Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.' Obviously disappointed that we didn't go a little farther this season. But I think regular-season wise, just to be able to rebound and play the type of defense that we played ... she definitely was heavy on my mind when I heard that I won this award."
Los Angeles finished third at 15-7 this season, but fell to Connecticut in the single-elimination second round. Still, it was a brilliant season for Parker, who averaged 14.7 points, a league-best 9.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocked shots.
She was second in both defensive rebounding percentage (32.7) and total rebounding percentage (19.9). She was also third in defensive win shares (1.8) and fourth in defensive rating (95.1). Behind the 6-foot-4 forward/center Parker, the Sparks held opponents to 31.3 points per game in the paint, the second fewest in the WNBA.
The vote was spread out for this honor. Parker received 16 votes from a national panel of 47 sportswriters and broadcasters, with Seattle forward Alysha Clark second (11 votes) and Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas third (10). Other players to receive votes were Phoenix forward Brianna Turner (four), Storm forwards Breanna Stewart (three) and Natasha Howard (one), and Minnesota forward Napheesa Collier (two).
Long known as one of the most talented and versatile offensive players in women's basketball, Parker said she wanted to show she could play at a higher level defensively. She credited assistant coach Latricia Trammell for helping her excel more in the second season in head coach Derek Fisher's system.
"Last year was a year of growth and understanding and kind of getting the concepts down," Parker said. "I think this year we took a huge jump in our understanding of our shell defense and our philosophy, and what we're trying to do."
Fisher said as a former NBA player, he understands why any player as good offensively as Parker would focus there.
"As a young athlete, and I can speak to this from my own experience, your identity is so wrapped up in the offensive end, the things that are going to garner the most attention," Fisher said. "It does take a while to disconnect your identity from what other people are thinking of you ... and you just want to do the things that help your team win. That's when the game starts to evolve."
Parker was also fully healthy coming into this season, which has not always been the case. Last season, she dealt with injuries and was limited to 22 of 34 regular-season games. She said she actually benefited physically from being in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, this year without the normal travel wear-and-tear on the body.
"I wanted to really do a better job this year coming in ready to go," Parker said. "In shape, making sure that my body is doing good. So during the quarantine, trying to be as healthy as possible. It was more of a mindset this year.
"I do believe people had written me off after last year. I think being injured last year at 33 ... I just wanted to prove that I had a little bit more left in the tank."