Candace Parker's health key for Sparks
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- A WNBA championship is always the priority for the Los Angeles Sparks. Second-year coach Jennifer Gillom, though, wants something different this season: a clean bill of health.
She knows the Sparks can't get one without the other.
"First of all, I want a healthy season," Gillom said Wednesday at the Sparks' media day. "My goal is to win a championship. I think we have the caliber team to take it to that level. I feel like we have all the pieces. The injuries are something that you can't control. You go through those adversities to help you prepare and, once you have a healthy team, it all clicks."
A bevy of injuries, most drastically the one suffered by star forward Candace Parker, derailed aspirations and lowered expectations last year. The Sparks still made the playoffs, but fell to the eventual champion Seattle Storm in the first round.
"I feel like we needed to be healthy and we weren't," said Parker, who missed all but 10 games in 2010 because of a shoulder injury. "That can hurt a team a lot. There were still some good things that happened. Other people stepped up. We have to think that that will help us into this season."
Back are veterans Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones, the Sparks' two leading scorers last year behind Parker. Thompson, the WNBA's only 14-year veteran, enters the season as the league's all-time leading scorer (6,413 points). Also returning is guard Ticha Penicheiro, the WNBA record-holder in assists (2,398) and steals (728).
"The sky is the limit for us," said Milton-Jones, who begins her 13th professional season and 10th in Los Angeles. "We had a rather disappointing year last year, as far as Sparks standards are concerned."
The Sparks' offseason was highlighted by the selection of Jantel Lavender with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Lavender averaged 20.7 points and 10.5 rebounds in four years at Ohio State.
"I want to be a force," said Lavender, a four-time Big Ten conference player of the year. "This is one of the greatest franchises and coming in behind Lisa Leslie is an honor. Just to be here in L.A. is a great feeling."
According to Gillom, Lavender fits the Sparks' system well because she brings a number of options off the bench.
"Coming in as a rookie with the Sparks, you're under a lot of pressure," Milton-Jones said. "I can totally understand it because I was once in that position. I played alongside Lisa Leslie, so I knew I wasn't going to come in and steal the show from her. I needed to be her Robin. That will be a great role for Jantel to play -- come in, be a beast on the boards and be tenacious on the defensive end."
All eyes will be on Parker, who hopes to play a full season for the first time since 2008, when she was the WNBA most valuable player and rookie of the year. She missed the first month of the 2009 season while on maternity leave. Parker averaged 20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds in 10 games last season.
"My main goal," Parker said, "is to get this team to a championship. That's important for me. I know what I'm capable of; everybody knows what I'm capable of. But at this point in my career I'm searching for a WNBA championship."
The Sparks, who haven't won a championship since 2002 and haven't appeared in the WNBA Finals since 2003, open the season June 3 at Staples Center against the Minnesota Lynx.Blair Angulo is co-author of the UCLA report and contributor to ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.