Friday, September 4, 2015

Is Candace Parker Staking a Claim to Mt. Rushmore?

Mea Culpa … mea maxima culpa.

I have long been dismissive of the talents of a renowned but ringless WNBA superstar.

Blessed with an array of skills that stand out even among All-Stars and Olympians …

Possessed of a championship-rich prep and collegiate resume …

Groomed by Pat Summitt herself …

The only WNBA player to earn Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year recognition simultaneously …

But Candace Parker’s Los Angeles Sparks have ever encountered an obstacle in their path to a title … a tragic flaw, for the Aristotelians in the crowd.

Earlier this week, ESPN football analyst Trevor Matich spoke quite eloquently to the frustration and uncertainty faced by offensive guys whose quarterback is prone to frequent and pre-mature free-lancing, ala Washington’s Robert Griffin III.

Similarly, Parker’s crowd-pleasing skill and athleticism can too often turn her teammates into spectators through no fault of their own. On so many of her court-length forays, the notion of team ball seems to enter the picture only after Candace has been forced to pick up her dribble – fodder for the cannon of a concerted defensive effort.

Her WNBA numbers have always been solid: 18-20 points, 8-10 rebounds, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent shooting – but n’ary a sniff of the Finals.

It’s almost as if CP has too many skills and has been unable to harness that complete package for competitive purposes. Rather than establishing control over the game situation, the player can become indecisive. Size, ability, often simply arriving at the gym, had generally been more than enough to dominate for so long.

But such is not the case at the most competitive levels of play. We recall LeBron James’s sundry “growing pains,” don’t we? We also can recall a fella they called “Tragic” Johnson for a while … if we are of an age.

Those of that age ought to know of the poster boy of limitless potential, Ralph Sampson. A 7’4”, ball-handling, jump-shooting phenom, the Towering Sampson Twinned with Hakeem Olajuwon to play once for an NBA title. A string of injuries soon ensued and forestalled a couple of comeback efforts before the proverbial light bulb ever came on and Ralph could fulfill all that tantalizing potential.

But has the style and level of play that Sampson teased now come to fruition with the mid-season return of the Sparks’ 6’5” stud? Her scoring and rebounding numbers (18 and 10) are on par, her playmaking exceptional (an unprecedented 6+ assists per game).

The team’s impressive turnaround, however, speaks most to CP’s impact and improvement. Essentially, and measurably, the Sparks are 10 points better with her than without her. Let’s look at some numbers for Parker’s first 14 games back – which do not include the 26 and 11 she hung on Mike Thibault’s tough Washington Mystics in a come-from-behind victory Thursday night.

LA lost 13 of its first 16 games by an average score of 76.4 – 70.1. Since then, the average score has been 76.5 – 70.6 in their favor, a reversal of 12.2 points per game. Field goal percentage has flipped from a 42.5 – 43.5 deficit to a 47.7 – 38.9 edge, a differential of 9.8 percentage points … so too in the rate of converting possessions, where a 44.9 – 50.2 disadvantage was nearly “reciprocated” into 49.2 – 45.4 to the good. The LA defense is even forcing two more turnovers per game while their own miscues have dropped slightly (even with Candace’s typical two or three a game).

Even aesthetically, the Sparks’ performance is pleasing, particularly their interior passing. Parker and savvy vet Jantel Lavender had their mojo working well in the latter stages of last summer’s play and seem to have picked up right where they left off.

Certainly there will remain the doubters, anxious to holler “Aha!” – I was long a member of that club. They’ll speak to the team’s continued vulnerability on the backboard despite Parker’s gaudy numbers. They’ll reference the team’s league-worst three-point shooting, which is not at all enhanced by our gal’s sub-20 percent brickin’.

As the regular season dwindles and playoffs launch, gut-check time has arrived in a season that appears to be more wide-open than most.

Can fresh legs and the gentle mentoring of a former foe (Coach Brian Agler, who’ll likely prove to have been a pivotal cog in this evolutionary wheel when all is revealed) lead Candace Parker to the one Promised Land that seems to have eluded her – and perhaps to basketball immortality?

Great Zeus!

(Oops, I started in Latin and ended in Greek – mea culpa.)