Sparks rout Storm, ruin Breanna Stewart's professional debut

LOS ANGELES -- There were five No. 1 picks on the floor at Staples Center on Sunday, all of whom could tell you their own stories of what it means to them to be in that club.

When the game was over, 2008's top pick -- the Los Angeles Sparks' Candace Parker -- had the biggest day and her team got exactly the start it wanted: a dominant, 96-66 victory over the Seattle Storm.

There actually were some positives for the Storm, particularly regarding two of their No. 1 picks who look to be the foundation of a bright future: 2016 top pick Breanna Stewart, in her pro debut, had 23 points, while 2015 top pick Jewell Loyd, last season's rookie of the year, had 20.

But Parker, with 34 points, five rebounds and four assists, was the most dominating player Sunday. Even though she really did not make a particularly big deal about that. She's looking at the long view of the season from a team perspective.

"I'm always excited and sleepless the night before the first game," Parker said. "I've been here from Day 1 in training camp, so I was just ready to get going.

"We're a very talented team, and I feel like we could make some noise this year. We've looked at what people have said and where they think we're going to finish, and used that as motivation."

Ah, yes, the athlete's favorite fuel: We're being underestimated. Saturday, Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve spoke about the "message" she thought her Lynx took from the fact that Phoenix was picked first by the league's general managers. At least some of the Sparks also feel they are being "overlooked."

But one thing Parker claims is not motivating her is the fact that she isn't on the U.S. Olympic team for the upcoming Rio Games.

"My focus is squarely on the Sparks; that's all I have to worry about," Parker said. "That's what I'm getting better for. That's kind of been done [the Olympic controversy]. We've kind of moved past that. I leave everybody else to talk and discuss, but our focus is on our team."

Los Angeles fans might view not just Sunday's game but every game this season as a chance for Parker to "prove USA Basketball wrong," and that's perfectly OK for them to do. Hey, you expect fans to feel that way about their team's star player. The fact that there are two Storm players -- Stewart and Sue Bird (she was the No. 1 pick in the 2002 WNBA draft) -- on the U.S. Olympic team but none from the Sparks might be on the fans' minds for a while.

Deep down, whether she'll ever say so publicly or not, Parker might feel a little of that herself. But she also knows that as long as she's keeping her mind on the business at hand, she's going to get the best results.

The Sparks are 14 years removed from the franchise winning back-to-back titles in 2001-02. Parker has yet to experience a WNBA Finals appearance, despite winning two MVP awards. She just turned 30 last month, and making a serious run at the league championship is what's foremost on her mind.

As Parker mentioned, she has been with the Sparks from the opening of training camp -- as opposed to last year, when she sat out the first half of the season to rest. Her imprint is already on this team, which is helpful considering players like Nneka Ogwumike (the 2012 No. 1 draft pick), Kristi Toliver and Jantel Lavender just arrived from overseas a few days ago.

"We have a little chemistry from last year, but we've only had one full practice where everybody in it," Parker said. "It's telling as to how great we could be. We'll develop that chemistry as the season goes on."

Despite the 30-point loss, Seattle coach Jenny Boucek remained upbeat. She knows she has two very young and very talented building blocks to work with.

"Experience is the best teacher; I'm glad we got our butt kicked," Boucek said. "I'm excited about the challenge; I can't wait to watch the film and get back on the practice court.

"[Breanna] showed she's got a lot to her, and she's only going get better. She's still got a ton to learn, but that's the exciting part about it. Jewell's already way different year one to year two. And when you have a young team, you've just got to learn as quickly as you can."

Stewart is not wasting any time in that regard. You could almost see the wheels turning in her head as she continually processed information throughout her nearly 34 minutes on the court.

"I felt good. As each quarter went on, I felt more comfortable in the game and with what we were trying to do," said Stewart, who was 9-of-13 from the field and 5-of-8 from the line, with six rebounds and three assists. "Obviously, there were a lot of mistakes. That's going to happen.

"But it was fun. Being matched up with a team like them, they're great. For my first game, it's one I'll remember. We lost, and that sucks. But I think there is a lot of good to come out of it as well."

"She was energized today, and she's practiced really well in the preseason ... I'm not saying she'll score in the 30s every night, but I think she wants to have a really good year." Sparks coach Brian Agler on Candace Parker

Stewart, of course, is coming off four consecutive NCAA titles and an undefeated senior season. She was also undefeated as a sophomore. The last game she lost, as a matter of fact, also was here in California -- several hours north and a year and a half ago. The Huskies fell at Stanford in November 2014 at the start of Stewart's junior season.

"It is a little weird; it's a different perspective," she said of losing after so much success. "But I think that at this level, it's going to be a challenge. I haven't been in a position where I've been down 20 and had to fight back."

And as for a 30-point deficit? Stewart said she couldn't remember the last time she has been that far behind in a game. Or if it has ever even happened before.

Stewart scored her first basket with 6 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first quarter, getting a layup after she'd grabbed a rebound off her own missed 3-pointer. She joked that UConn assistant coach Chris Dailey would have needled her about padding her rebound stats by missing shots, but even a very tough critic would have commended Stewart on how she handled her first game.

"I think she has a chance to be a special player," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "The game is different; it's a little more physical. But in the second half, she sort of settled in and found her spots. She did some things on the move that impressed me."

But Agler, who left Seattle and took over the Sparks last season, is really looking forward to a whole summer of working with Parker.

"She was energized today, and she's practiced really well in the preseason," Agler said. "It didn't surprise me that she played this way. I'm not saying she'll score in the 30s every night, but I think she wants to have a really good year. And she wants our team to have a good year."