Top pick could spur on Sparks

The year before Tim Duncan arrived in San Antonio, the Spurs limped to a 20-62 record, playing without the services of David Robinson for all but six games.

The next year, with Robinson and Duncan combining to average more than 40 points per game, the Spurs won 56 games and laid a foundation that eventually sent Robinson into retirement as a champion, established Duncan as the best player in the game and turned the Spurs into one of the league's preeminent franchises.

Not a bad tradeoff for one season of disappointment.

Now imagine that Duncan had a movie star's personality and that the heart of Texas was the hills of Hollywood and it's easy to understand why WNBA officials had to be quietly celebrating Tuesday when they avoided a repeat of the NBA draft lottery, when small-market franchises in Portland and Seattle beat the odds and earned the chance to draft Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, respectively.

There are no guarantees that Candace Parker, who is on track to graduate from the University of Tennessee this December, will give up her final season of eligibility and enter the WNBA draft next spring. But it's difficult to imagine her passing up the chance to play next to Lisa Leslie in Los Angeles after the Sparks won the right to pick first from what promises to be one of the best draft classes in league history.

With Leslie, who sat out the WNBA season to give birth to her first child and might play for Team USA during its college tour after the upcoming World League Tournament in Russia as she works her way back into form, and Parker lining up in the frontcourt (which might also include All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin), the Sparks would immediately leapfrog Seattle, Sacramento and San Antonio as the top challenger for the newly crowned champion Phoenix Mercury in the Western Conference.

Leslie, who will turn 36 next season, put together arguably her best all-around season in 2006, earning MVP honors. Playing alongside Parker would give the same kind of safety net on the court that Chamique Holdsclaw, for all her off-court issues, provided on the court two seasons ago. And for Parker, who made enormous progress converting potential into polish playing alongside veteran mentors as the third-leading scorer on the national team in the 2006 World Championship, opening her professional career as a co-headliner isn't going to hurt.

But perhaps more important than Parker's effect on the Sparks would be the effect of the Sparks on the league. Parker playing in Los Angeles would give the WNBA a player with the talent and charisma to instantly become its most marketable asset. And it would do so while simultaneously putting her in position to square off against Diana Taurasi three or four times a summer in the regular season, tapping into the long bloodlines of the now defunct UConn-Tennessee rivalry and enhancing each player's profile in the process.

The level of play in the WNBA increases dramatically with each new class of players entering the league, but many sports fans long ago made up their mind about professional women's basketball as a punchline or David Stern's charity project. Whether she comes out this year or next, Parker won't save the league because she's that much better than every other player. But what she could do on a championship contender in Los Angeles, and what the league desperately needs her to do, is draw a big enough spotlight to show that she's not so much a freak of nature as the latest evolution of the game's growth.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.