One Steps Out, Others Step Up

Story by: Ryan Eletto

DeLisha Milton-JonesWith rookie sensation Candace Parker expected to be sidelined for the first month of her sophomore season, one would anticipate a huge hole in the Sparks’ 2009 starting lineup. Last season, in which Parker was the first player in WNBA history to win both Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year honors, the talented 22-year-old forward averaged 18.5 points per game, good for fifth-best in the league, and 9.5 rebounds per game, which was tops in the WNBA. How could the team possibly replace that production? It’s on everybody, says 10-year veteran DeLisha Milton-Jones.

“The most logical thing is that the responsibility will fall on the entire team,” Milton-Jones, the team’s third-leading scorer and rebounder in 2008, said. “We want to be the best rebounding team on the floor. Candace’s absence leaves a huge hole to fill, but it’s fillable. It’s all based on effort.”

The acquisition of 12-year veteran and two-time Olympic gold medalist Tina Thompson in the off-season will help mitigate the loss of Parker both on offense and on the glass, says starting center Lisa Leslie, a fellow former USC Trojan. Thompson averaged 18 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per contest last year while playing for the Houston Comets.

“There’s no more pressure on me personally, but Tina Thompson, DeLisha and I need to stay on the boards and keep rebounding,” Leslie said. “I need to stay on Candace to give consistent effort on the glass [when she comes back]. She’s so athletic that rebounding usually comes easy to her. But there’s no drop-off while she’s out because Tina will make a great replacement, at least for now.”

Lisa LeslieThompson’s resume is quite impressive, boasting four consecutive WNBA championships from 1997-2000, five All-Star game appearances, an All-Star game MVP award in 2000, and three All-WNBA First Team selections. Still, despite her vast array of accolades throughout her vaunted WNBA career, both she and newcomer Betty Lennox have been willing to leave their egos at the door, according to Milton-Jones. Lennox averaged 17.5 points per game last season playing for the Atlanta Dream.

“Betty Lennox and Tina Thompson are doing everything in their power to buy in to the Sparks,” Milton-Jones said. “They’ve been finding out how to sacrifice part of their game for the team. They’ve done a great job of blending in and becoming an added piece to the puzzle.”

Though Leslie announced long ago that her twelfth season, the 2009 campaign, will be her last, she still expects to be as productive as ever.

“For one, I feel better, and will be able to focus more on basketball this year because my daughter, Lauren, won’t be traveling with me on road trips,” Leslie said. “I have a really good support group. It will require a big sacrifice on my family for the summer, but it will be for the best.”

Even at the very beginning of training camp, Leslie’s teammates already noticed her improved health and energy.

“The big difference for Lisa between this year and last is that now she has her legs up under her,” Milton-Jones said. “She came back in better shape.”

Regardless of who is in the lineup on Opening Day, the goal for the season remains the same as every year, Leslie says – to win another championship.

“We are here to win a WNBA championship. We have the hunger and fire. We’re not complacent. We want to win it all. But first, we’ll have to get past the Western Conference finals this time.”

In order to win that championship, the team will likely need all its superstars, including CP3. And though she will have the additional burden of caring for a child while trying to concentrate on basketball, a challenge Leslie is all-too-familiar with, Leslie has faith that Parker will be able to handle the task with the help of her family.

“It is a major change for Candace,” Leslie said. “I call her ‘the baby [of the team],’ but now it’s different because the baby has a baby. It’s an adjustment.”

“Having a baby is not glamorous; you need a great support system. [Parker’s husband, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Shelden Williams] will be a great dad. It’s tough, but one advantage she has is her age in terms of recovery time."

Leslie also mentioned that because Parker had a natural birth, instead of a Caesarian section as Leslie did, Parker’s rehabilitation time will likely be much shorter. She is expected to be able to return to the team sometime in July. But until then, the Sparks can rest assured that with the help of their newcomers, Thompson and Lennox (and two of their veterans, Leslie and Milton-Jones), the team will be fully capable of adapting to its one-month super challenge.