Monday, December 31, 2007

Parker feeling a draft?

There's no shortage of Candace Parker video on YouTube. You can watch footage of Parker dunking a basketball, accepting the John Wooden Award, winning two state championships at Naperville Central and an array of video tributes to Parker and her Tennessee teammates. That alone shows how big Parker has become since her high school days.

So it's no wonder that the third-ranked Lady Vols' game Wednesday against No. 12 DePaul at McGrath Arena is sold out. Parker's homecoming weekend continues Saturday, when the Lady Vols head to South Bend, Ind., for a matchup with No.16 Notre Dame.

''I've been really excited for my first trip home to play DePaul, and I'm excited to play in front of my family and friends,'' Parker said. ''This is the first time both my grandmothers will see me play, and I'm really excited about that.''

All the excitement aside, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt knows Parker will go back to focusing on the task at hand -- beating DePaul. The No. 3 Lady Vols are coming off a West Coast road trip in which they beat UCLA but lost in overtime at No. 2 Stanford.

''It is going to be a special homecoming for Candace, but she understands we have a game to play against a team that puts up a lot of threes,'' Summitt said. ''And I think she'll have that focus. Wherever we go, there's a lot of attention drawn to Candace, especially in Chicago and South Bend.''

Parker, a redshirt junior, will graduate this spring with a degree in sports management. She's engaged to former Duke player and current Atlanta Hawks forward Shelden Williams.

The All-American was the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game and the first high school girl to dunk in a game during her sophomore year at a Dundee-Crown tournament game.

In September, Parker led the U.S. women to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas Championship, giving them an automatic berth in the Beijing Olympics this summer.

And Parker wants another NCAA championship this spring after leading the Lady Vols to the 2007 title over Rutgers. It was Tennessee's first national title since 1998.

But there is rampant talk of Parker forgoing her final year of eligibility and declaring for the WNBA draft in April. That question has followed her since last season.

Parker likely would be the No. 1 pick. Representatives of the Los Angeles Sparks, who have the top pick, were visible Dec. 19 when Tennessee played UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Even Sparks center Lisa Leslie sat behind the Lady Vols' bench with her 6-month-old daughter, fueling speculation that Parker will strongly consider turning pro.

The Chicago Sky, which has the second pick, will host the Sparks in a preseason game May 8 and in its home opener May 22.

Parker keeps in touch with her former high school coach, Andy Nussbaum, who will be at the game Wednesday and plans to attend the Notre Dame game, too. But Nussbaum has no more insight than anyone else into whether Parker will declare for the draft.

''There are pluses and minuses, and I don't think she can make a bad decision on this,'' Nussbaum said. ''There is no question she will be more than competitive because she is one of the best players ever to come out of the Chicago area.''

Parker has said she wants to live in the moment and will talk to her family and Summitt about whether to come out early. But during a conference call Friday, she cracked open the door to her future plans.

''It's a difficult situation because of where the draft falls,'' Parker said. ''We want to be in the Final Four [on April 6-8], and the draft is close to that. As we get closer, I'll talk to my family and coach.

''But with getting my degree in May, I'm leaning on not being at Tennessee next year.''

Summitt said she has spoken to Parker briefly about turning pro, but the message she tried to get across to the 6-4 guard/forward was to enjoy the season and her life as a college student.

''I never had the opportunity to play professionally,'' Summitt said. ''These are the best years of your life, and I want her to enjoy the season, try to establish what we want to do this year and leave it at that.''

Even though it seems like Parker has her mind made up not to come back to Tennessee, she has taken all the draft-talk distraction in stride.

It seems that each of Parker's seasons at Tennessee has had a recurring theme.

There were questions about how her knee would hold up during her freshman year after two surgeries in the fall of 2004 forced her to redshirt in the 2004-05 season.

The knee issue dogged Parker again in 2005-06, and then came the WNBA speculation that started last season. It seems like it never ends. But Parker has enjoyed the ride.

''I could never have imagined this,'' she said. ''I ask coach Summitt all the time about back when she was driving the [team] van and washing the [uniforms] herself. All this has been part of the growth [of the sport], and I'm excited to play for her and be at Tennessee.''

What a year
Candace Parker of Naperville, a junior at Tennessee, has led the Lady Vols to a 10-1 record and No. 3 ranking this season entering the game Wednesday at No. 12 DePaul. She leads the team with 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Today culminates quite a 2007:

Jan. 28 -- Scored 1,000th career point in 56th game, the fastest to reach that mark in Tennessee history.

March 1 -- Named SEC Player of the Year during conference tournament. (Top-seeded Vols lost to LSU in semifinals).

April 3 -- Scored 17 points to lead Tennessee past Rutgers for the national title. Named the tournament's most outstanding player and Final Four MVP. Other accolades from sophomore season:

* Named first-team All-American by AP, WBCA/Kodak, John Wooden and

* State Farm Wade Trophy Player of the Year

* Wooden Award Player of the Year

* Basketball Writers Association Player of the Year

* Honda Sports Award Winner for Basketball Player of the Year

April 27 -- Named as one of People Magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People for 2007.

May -- Engaged to Shelden Williams of the Atlanta Hawks.

July 11 -- 2007 ESPY Awards: Nominated for best female athlete and best female college athlete (lost both to Arizona softball player Taryne Mowatt).

Sept. 30 -- Scored 12 points in USA victory against Cuba in the FIBA Americas Championship in Chile. The win automatically qualified the team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

December -- Named Woman Athlete of the Year for College Basketball by Sports Illustrated.

No comments: