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Alana Beard's return from injury boosts Sparks

Alana Beard, who has had to bounce back from injuries throughout her WNBA career, has averaged 11.0 points and 2.3 steals in three games since returning. Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images

It wasn't too long ago when it didn't seem all that likely we'd still be watching Alana Beard play in the WNBA in 2015. Chronic and painful ankle problems kept her out during the 2010 and '11 WNBA seasons. And she seemed well prepared for life after basketball, with her eye on the business world.

However, Beard wasn't done with hoops. Now here she is as a key part of a Los Angeles Sparks' team that appears to be in revival mode after the All-Star break.

Beard returned to play last week from plantar fasciitis, which sidelined her in mid-June after the Sparks' first two games this season.

"Unfortunately, I've been in this position a lot," Beard, 33, said of dealing with injuries. "But at the same time, I keep coming back. I keep working through it."

The Sparks are thankful for that, because of all the 5-foot-11 guard/forward can do for them. Through nearly the first eight weeks of the season, the Sparks had won just three games. Now they've won back-to-back games in the last four days. And Tuesday at Staples Center (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), they'll get their second chance in a week's time to take on the league's top team, Minnesota.

Los Angeles is now 5-14, a record that admittedly still looks terrible, but actually puts the Sparks just one game back (in the win column) of fourth-place San Antonio in the Western Conference. The Sparks just beat the Stars in San Antonio on Sunday. And although they lost at Minnesota on July 29, the Lynx's lead in that game was down to three with about 2½ minutes left.

Of course, the Sparks got an enormous lift against Minnesota from the return of post player Candace Parker, who sat out the early part of this season to rest and recover from overseas competition. Parker didn't need to gradually ease her way back into star status; she was there immediately. Through three games, she is averaging 20.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.0 blocks.

But Beard also has made an impact, averaging 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 steals in her three games since returning.

"I think it's huge for their defense," Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said of Beard's return. "I know Alana is someone who will really help in that area. And she's another ball handler, she has size, she's such a competitor. So I think she's a big factor for them."

Beard has clicked well with coach Brian Agler in his first season with Los Angeles.

"She brings that maturity, toughness and focus that you have to have to play at a high level in this league," Agler said.

Beard also gets an assist for her part in Parker's return. In June, Parker began to feel like she could and should come back to the WNBA this season, even getting encouragement from her 6-year-old daughter.

"She brings that maturity, toughness and focus that you have to have to play at a high level in this league." L.A. coach Brian Agler on Alana Beard

Parker knew Agler was very open to her returning whenever she decided to do it. But Parker also wanted to know -- for real, no sugarcoating -- how the other players would deal with it. And she asked Beard about that.

They went out to lunch to discuss the Sparks' chemistry and what was needed to make a playoff run. Even though Beard was injured then, she was still very involved and engaged with the team, which has considerable talent, including the likes of Nneka Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Kristi Toliver.

"Candace and I had an interesting conversation," Beard said. "She knows I am always going to be honest in every aspect. She's a great person, and I thought it was huge of her to seek my opinion out in terms of how I thought the team would feel about her coming back."

Beard assured Parker that the Sparks all knew how much Parker could help the team, and they were still optimistic about the season despite the poor start. And Parker knew Beard's return from injury would make a big difference, too.

Beard spent her first six WNBA seasons in Washington, where she averaged 16.2 points. After two years of dealing with her ankle issues, she knew a change of WNBA scenery was best, and went to Los Angeles for the 2012 season.

So Beard -- like Parker, who was the No. 1 draft pick by Los Angeles in 2008 -- has been part of the recent ups and downs of a Sparks franchise that seemed on the verge of contending for a championship ... yet now is on its third coach since last year. Carol Ross, despite going a combined 48-20 with playoff appearances in 2012 and '13, was fired in July 2014 and replaced by general manager Penny Toler for the rest of the season.

Then Agler, a veteran WNBA coach who won the 2010 league title with Seattle, left the Storm to take over at Los Angeles. Beard has benefited a lot from observing Agler and his staff.

"I don't think I've ever before learned as much while sitting out as I've learned this time," Beard said, "because Brian is a teacher of the game. I pride myself in my defense, but I've been so used to doing things my way. Now, I'm seeing Brian's way, and it's added to my defensive game in terms of being aware of spacing, where you are on the floor, your teammates.

"It's just a different concept with how he wants the court to shrink and the ball is on one side. Instead of being in denial all the time or being an anticipator and going for steals all the time, it's got more structure to it."

That Beard continues to have so much enthusiasm for refining her game is a tribute to her resilience. She still loves playing, she's grateful she has received so much support from her teammates, and she still hopes to get a WNBA championship.

"I've grown to understand you just take it moment by moment," Beard said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be where I am right now. But a championship is always one of those things ... it's not in the back of my mind, it's at the forefront of my mind. It's about knowing what we have to do as a team to get there. It takes complete dedication in every aspect of the game."