Candace Parker steps up as MVP

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Candace Parker made sure everything went her way Saturday afternoon.

Right down to the piece of carrot cake she lobbied for on the tray of assorted dessert delicacies presented to Glory Johnson in the Western Conference locker room after the All-Star Game. Then again, Parker earned first dibs.

In a season dominated by talk of special rookies, and certainly to some degree by their play, the unlikeliest All-Star rookie was the keynote speaker Saturday as the rest of the league made its own statement.

Time will tell how many people watched, but there have always been more than three to see.

Start with Parker, who took MVP honors in the West's 102-98 win with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. The points represented an All-Star Game record and the effort included a back-breaking drive and key rebounds in the final minutes that clinched the victory. She was the best player on the court, and made that matter as much as the details of who wasn't on the court, namely injured rookies Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner.

That Saturday was Parker's All-Star debut had nothing to do with her level of play since entering the league in 2008. She has always been among the best, if not the single best, player in the WNBA. But through a combination of Olympic and World Championship years that altered or eliminated the All-Star Game, and the birth of daughter Lailaa, Parker and the league's midseason showcase never ended up in the same place at the same time.

Saturday's MVP award and accompanying plaudits could easily have come years ago, but they were savored that much more because they didn't.

"If you had got it all at once, I feel like, maybe things might not be as special," Parker said. "But it happens now. I've waited six years to be in the All-Star Game and it just makes it that much more special."

The performance itself was both impressive and meaningless. It was an All-Star Game. Which is to say, it was part competition and part entertainment. For most of the first three quarters, defense was optional and quantity topped quality when it came to shot selection (although Parker finished an efficient 10-of-13 from the floor). Even the fourth quarter was intense only by comparison to what preceded it.

It wasn't about what she did in a game that doesn't matter. It was the reminder of what she can do on a regular basis when it actually matters.

"I enjoy her ability to take the ball off the glass and go end to end and make plays," Western Conference coach Cheryl Reeve said.

She has been doing that for a long time. Parker was a story the moment she arrived at Tennessee almost a decade ago, probably long before that. Not so long ago, she was where Delle Donne, Griner and Skylar Diggins are now, hopes for the league resting on her shoulders. As they did on Maya Moore's shoulders, and Diana Taurasi's before them. The potential of youth will always tantalize. But there's something to be said for enjoying what comes.

"I'd watched her in AAU and high school and things like that, and she just has a presence about her," Sparks and Western Conference teammate Kristi Toliver said. "But now being her teammate, she's very approachable, very fun loving, sarcastic, funny. She's a really good person. But prior to knowing her, she just has a presence -- you just kind of step back and watch her."

It was Toliver who provided Parker with her closest competition in the MVP race. The fifth-year guard scored 19 of her 21 points in the second half and showed off the quick release and touch that have made her one of the league's best scoring options the past two seasons after part-time duty her first three seasons. Along with the likes of Rebekkah Brunson, Epiphanny Prince and Ivory Latta, she showed how far her game had come.

The glint in the eye and accompanying grin that flashed across Toliver's face when she was asked if the performances she and Parker turned in Saturday might have carried some meaning beyond an exhibition result spoke volumes. Beating the East was one goal, perhaps the primary one if you believe the players. But it was nice to show that the rest of the league is still here to see, proven stars and emerging ones alike.

"We're still young. We're not rookies, but we're 26 or 27," Toliver said. "I think what the rookies have brought to this league is positive, obviously. I think when their game develops, they'll be here and they'll be able to do different things on the floor. But we have a group, six or seven first-time All-Stars, playing right now that put on a pretty good show.

"There's a lot of talent in this league besides the '3 To See,' and I think we did a good job, at least today, of broadcasting that."

When it comes to balancing hyping the future without overshadowing the present, time will tell if the league can have its cake and eat it, too. Saturday, Parker managed just fine.