Candace Parker is changing the nature of conversations about women's basketball.
Before she came along, women's basketball players didn't dunk with regularity. They didn't leave college early to go pro. They certainly didn't play all five positions on the floor "with efficiency," as Tennessee coach Pat Summitt put it Monday.
Parker comes to Maples Pavilion tonight with top-ranked Tennessee to take on No. 5 Stanford. It is not a stretch to consider the Lady Vols' road games this season her farewell tour.
With one year of eligibility remaining, Parker likely will become the first women's player to end her college career early and begin what is sure to be a well-hyped and lucrative professional career.
For the record, Parker isn't saying for sure. She and Summitt have avoided saying that Parker, who led Tennessee out of an eight-year national championship drought last March and won national player of the year honors in the process, won't return to Knoxville for the 2008-09 season.
But it's widely assumed that she won't. Parker will graduate in May with a degree in sports management. The WNBA rule is that a player who has completed her graduation requirements is eligible to be drafted.
"I think the feeling is that this is her last year - and if she can arrive at that decision, she's got a lot of things going on," Summitt was quoted as saying last month. "With the WNBA, and with USA Basketball, wanting to make that Olympic team next summer. The main thing I want her to do is what's best for her."
Fueling the speculation about Parker's imminent departure is the fact that the Los Angeles Sparks have the No. 1 pick in April's WNBA draft. The Sparks have big-market endorsement opportunities to offer. They can also put Parker in position as the heir apparent, playing alongside stalwart Lisa Leslie in the final year or two of Leslie's decorated career.
Parker and the top-ranked Lady Volunteers traveled to Los Angeles to face UCLA on Wednesday night, and it had markings of a sneak preview.
Leslie watched from behind the Tennessee bench. Sparks coach Michael Cooper and general manager Penny Toler sat at midcourt. More than 4,000 fans came to Pauley Pavilion, more than the combined total of fans who have attended UCLA home games to date this season.
They all came with hopes that seeing Parker play in person isn't going to be such a rare occasion.
"She's one of those people who lives up to the hype," said Stanford senior guard Candice Wiggins, a friend of Parker's through their times on USA Basketball rosters. "She's the face right now and it's great for women's basketball. At her size, no one can do what Candace can do."
Parker, who sat out her freshman season with a knee injury and thus is considered a redshirt junior, said Monday in a phone interview that she is "not thinking" about what her basketball future holds. The best part about having nearly all of her coursework done is the ability to focus more on her game.
"It's cool to sit back and enjoy my senior year," Parker said. "I had pretty hard course loads in my freshman and sophomore years."
The 6-foot-4 Naperville, Ill., native is fifth in the nation in scoring (22.3 points a game), averages 9.2 rebounds, and has 19 blocked shots and 21 steals in nine games.
Like Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings before her, Parker has earned the gushing respect of her head coach, who has said that Parker will go down as the best player in the history of the women's game.
Summitt expanded on those sentiments Monday, talking about Parker's game-changing ability on both ends of the floor. That's the thing, the coach believes, that puts Parker on a different plane.
"She has understood her role as an offensive player, a rebounder and a defender on our team," Summitt said in a conference call. "She is playing harder than she ever has in her career at Tennessee, with her running the floor and being much more assertive on both ends. This is her best basketball to date, but I think there is still a great upside to her game."
The coach said she has seen Parker become a more dedicated worker, with extra individual workouts and time in the film room, where she meticulously analyzes and breaks down her game. Over the summer, Parker said she worked on her face-up game and her jump shot.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has watched Parker put up 46 points and 21 rebounds in the last two games against the Cardinal, said you can do everything right and not stop Parker.
"I just want to make sure we are in the right place at the right time anyway," VanDerveer said. "The kids are looking forward to it. They want to play the best."
Summitt remains demanding of her star.
"There have been several times that I've shaken my head watching Candace play," Summitt said. "But sometimes it is when she isn't playing hard. When she plays hard, she separates herself."
Tennessee owns a 19-4 advantage and has won 11 in a row dating back to December 1996.
Of note: Last year's 77-60 loss by Stanford was the first double-digit margin in nine games. ... Stanford's 9-1 start is the program's best since 2004-05. ...Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer have won a combined 1,655 games. Summitt is at 957 (the all-time leader) and VanDerveer sits at 698.
Quotable: "I'm excited to play. I'm tired of talking about it." - Stanford's Candice Wiggins
Probable starters Stanford
Candice Wiggins, G, 17.9 ppg
Jayne Appel, C, 15.8
Kayla Pederson, F, 13.0
Jillian Harmon, F, 8.5
Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, G, 5.2
Candace Parker, F, 22.3 ppg
Alexis Hornbuckle, G, 11.8
Nicky Anosike, C, 9.0
Angie Bjorklund, G, 10.9
Shannon Bobbitt, G, 8.9