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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

If Candace Parker was looking to make a point, she made it all right. Thirty-four times, in fact.

The question isn’t whether Parker was trying to make a statement Sunday with her 34-point effort in Los Angeles’ 96-66 win over Seattle at Staples Center. The question is, which statement was it?

Was it a message to USA Basketball that despite not being selected to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team that she is still on a short list of best players in the world?

Was it a reminder to the WNBA that the two-time MVP is as dangerous as ever and prepared to dish it out over an entire season after taking half of last season off?

Or, was it a statement to her team that she’s done with her eight-year wait to win a WNBA Championship and she intends to do just that this season?

Maybe it was all three.

Parker’s debut vaulted her into the scoring lead after a fast-paced weekend in which some of the league’s biggest stars proved why they are just that – with Minnesota’s Maya Moore going for 27 on Saturday against Phoenix and New York’s Tina Charles averaging 24 points over her first two games (more on that a little later).

Even Breanna Stewart, the No. 1 draft pick, put up a big number in her highly anticipated professional debut, scoring 23 points while frequently being guarded by Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, albeit in a losing effort against the Sparks.

The Sparks might be feeling a little overlooked with Minnesota coming off another title, Phoenix basking in the return of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor and New York’s emergence as a power player.

But Parker wants to make sure that Los Angeles gets it due attention as a title contender. On Sunday, she made her point loud and clear.

WHO WE MISSED

If the first weekend of the WNBA season marked a Who’s Who of highlight-worthy performances, there were also games that were notable for Who Wasn’t.

The Chicago Sky played their first game of the 2016 season without star Elena Delle Donne, who fell ill and was scratched from the opening day lineup about an hour before tip-off.

Sky coach Pokey Chatman said Delle Donne, the league’s leading scorer and Most Valuable Player in 2015, had a stomach virus and that her illness was not related to her chronic battle with Lyme Disease, which sidelined her for part the 2014 season and at times during her college career.

Even without EDD, the Sky still managed to generate the offense they needed to defeat the Connecticut Sun on their home floor.

Delle Donne reportedly practiced Monday and is expected to be on the floor when the Sky take on the defending champion Lynx on Wednesday, a game that will match up the league’s previous two MVPs.

As mentioned, Chicago wasn’t the only team to take the floor without their All-Star.

The Dallas Wings made their debut without guard Skylar Diggins. Diggins is in the final stages of her recovery from last summer’s ACL injury, which cut short a promising season in 2015.

Wings coach Fred Williams spoke to the media after Sunday’s game and said he didn’t want to rush Diggins back on to the floor. Her characterized her status as game-to-game. Dallas plays again Wednesday at Washington, before taking a break before playing at home Saturday against San Antonio.

“Still working it out,” Williams said to the Associated Press about Diggins. “I have to go by how she feels. It’s day-by-day with her.”

With Diggins’ status uncertain and Glory Johnson serving her seven-game suspension to start the season, the Wings are missing two of their top players.

There are at least a couple of other teams in the league who understand what it’s like to do without. San Antonio is expected to play this season without All-Star point guard Danielle Robinson, who underwent successful Achilles tendon surgery late in March.

Washington will likely play at least a month without their point guard, veteran Ivory Latta, who had surgery to repair a meniscus tear on April 20. Latta, 31, has played in at least 34 games over each of the past for seasons

And the Liberty are looking to fill Epiphanny Prince’s shoes in the backcourt after she suffered a torn ACL playing for her Russian team in November (again, more on that later)…

THE RETURN OF CHINEY

Chiney Ogwumike understands sitting and watching. She spent all last season doing it while recovering from microfracture surgery right knee in January 2015.

Ogwumike, the 2014 Rookie of the Year, is no wallflower. She is a regular on social media, but when she was diagnosed, she said she made a decision to go quiet for a while. She spent the first eight weeks of her recovery on crutches, and kept a low profile.

“I didn’t want it to be part of my narrative,” Ogwumike said. “When Penny Hardaway had the surgery (in the early 2000s), he was never able to get all the way back. But the science has advanced a lot. It’s not anything like it used to be. It’s a little less common now. I didn’t want the surgery to become part of who I am. I just didn’t want that.”

Ogwumike has been careful with the entire experience, including a long rehabilitation that now has her feeling like she’s ready to pick up her career where she left off. As a rookie, she averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 31 games.

In her season opener on Saturday in Chicago, Ogwumike played 16 minutes, scoring four points on 1-of-3 shooting from the floor with two rebounds.

After the game, she tweeted, “Tough one FOR SURE, but sooooo glad to be back.”

Ogwumike spent her time off building the foundations for a career after basketball in broadcasting, working women’s games for the Pac-12 Network and ESPN. She also did studio work.

“It was bittersweet because I wasn’t playing, but in a way, it was kind of a relief,” Ogwumike said. “I didn’t have to look at my stats all the time and worry about it. I could just enjoy being a human being. I want to play and compete, but it was also nice to just be able to focus on something else. I had an opportunity to do something that I want to do. And it kept me around the game and on a good schedule.”

Now it’s time to focus on basketball again. She jokes now that she feels like a “grandma” sometimes.

“I have to warm up a lot,” Ogwumike said. “But I am feeling better and stronger all the time.”…

BIG START IN THE BIG APPLE

The New York Liberty only needed to win their first two games of the season to be off to the franchise’s best start since 2011. But the way they are playing, there looks to be many more where that came from.

Charles is a bonafide star in the WNBA and she played like it, averaging 24 points over two games in wins against Washington (on the road) and Dallas (at home).

The surprise was the breakout scoring of guard Sugar Rodgers. Rodgers scored 19 points to go with five rebounds and four steals in the opener against the Mystics and then followed up with a career-high 24 points – including six 3-pointers – against the Wings.

With Rodgers stepping up in place of the injured Prince, the Liberty are primed to build on their great start, playing the next four games at Madison Square Garden. New York doesn’t hit the road again until June 5 when the team plays at Seattle. …

SOMETHING NEW FOR STEWIE

Speaking of Seattle, Stewart experienced something in her first professional basketball game that she rarely experienced as a college superstar at UConn. A loss. The Storm’s 30-point defeat at Los Angeles on Sunday was relatively new territory for “Stewie”.

“It is a little weird; it’s a different perspective,” Stewart said to espnW after the loss. “But I think that at this level, it’s going to be a challenge. I haven’t been in a position where I’ve been down 20 and had to fight back.”

The road for Stewart doesn’t get any easier. Her next two games come against the West’s elite in Phoenix (May 20) and Minnesota (May 22).


Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.

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