Impact 10:No. 9 Candace Parker
It seemed as if we all waited a long time for Candace Parker's professional career to finally hit its groove. The player with so many talents and so many trophies has had an up-and-down WNBA journey that finally headed in the decidedly "up" direction.
The way we knew it would be all along.
The most fluid, versatile women's basketball player on the planet is starting to maximize her gifts.
Parker would be the first to tell you she's not done climbing. She badly wants a WNBA title to match the two NCAA crowns she won under coach Pat Summitt at Tennessee and two Olympic gold medals she won with Team USA in 2008 and 2012.
It is the gaping hole in her trophy case, to be sure.
"People asked me when I was 22, 'How many championships do you want to win?' and I said, 'I don't know, six or seven,'" Parker told ESPN earlier this year. "And I'm sitting here at 27 years old, six years into my career, and I haven't won yet. It's not as easy as it looks from the outside."
Parker's WNBA career, in fact, has been anything but easy.
After her spectacular rookie season in 2008, she walked away with the WNBA's Most Valuable Player Award. In 2009, she missed the first eight games of the season after giving birth to her daughter, Lailaa Williams, and spent the rest of the schedule working her way back into playing shape. A shoulder injury cost her most of the 2010 season, and a knee injury took a large chunk of 2011.
It wasn't until 2012 when Parker was fully healthy, fully ready to be Candace Parker. She was great in 2012 because she had to be. The Sparks depended on her so heavily, particularly on the offensive end, en route to a 24-10 record and No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. But her quest to win a WNBA title fell short with a gut-wrenching loss against Minnesota in the Western Conference finals.
This past season in 2013, Parker did not have her best scoring or rebounding numbers, but she was her best self on the floor through 31 regular-season games (17.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and career-best 3.8 assists), propelling the Sparks to another second-place finish in the hotly competitive West. She also finished among the league's top 10 in four offensive categories, showcasing her all-around game.
Remarkably, she made just her first appearance in the WNBA All-Star Game, scoring a league-record 23 points in the star-studded event and earning MVP honors.
There were celebrated WNBA rookies who stole much of the summer spotlight, but it was Parker who walked away with her second MVP Award in the closest vote in league history. She became the fifth player in league history to win two MVP Awards, joining the stellar company of Lauren Jackson (three), Lisa Leslie (three), Sheryl Swoopes (three) and Cynthia Cooper (two).
What she didn't walk away with was a title -- she again swallowed the bitter pill of a one-point loss on her home floor, this time against Phoenix. Parker, who averaged 25.7 points a game in the series, hit what looked like the game-winning shot with seven seconds on the clock in the deciding Game 3, but Brittney Griner matched her with a baseline jumper over her outstretched hand with 4.9 seconds left to seal the series.
It's a loss that has left her to reevaluate how to improve even more.
"When the same thing keeps happening over and over again, you have to look in the mirror and figure out what's going on," Parker recently told espnW.com. "Wanting a championship doesn't necessarily mean you are going to get it. I have to do the things necessary to get to that point."