Los Angeles guard/forward Alana Beard was surprised but delighted to hear that she had won the WNBA's defensive player of the year award for the second season in a row.
"I don't know if it's because I'm hard on myself, or because of the way the season played out," Beard said. "But I was shocked when I received the honor. At the same time, I'm really grateful for it. Because it's amazing for this to be happening, back-to-back, so late in my career."
The 5-foot-11 Beard, 36, just finished her 13th season in the WNBA. The Sparks, who made the WNBA Finals the past two seasons and won the league title in 2016, finished sixth this year at 19-15. They won their first-round playoff game against Minnesota, but then lost in the second round to Washington.
Beard got 16 votes from a media panel. Minnesota center Sylvia Fowles, who has won the defensive award three times, was second with nine votes. Atlanta guard Tiffany Hayes received four votes, and teammate Jessica Breland, a Dream forward, got two. Phoenix center Brittney Griner also received two votes, while six players received one vote each.
Beard was fourth in the league in steals this season at 1.47 per game. The Sparks as a team led the WNBA in that category (7.94 per game) and in average points allowed (77 PPG).
"I hang my hat on the things I know I can do. I know I can out-work anyone," Beard said. "I put my head down and keep pushing no matter what. Nothing will stop me from doing my job.
"As a defender, we're dealing with an increased skill level from offensive players. And with rule changes like defensive three seconds. But I have to give credit to [coach] Brian Agler and my teammates, because we implement a system. And if we stick with it, we're a pretty darn good defensive group."
Agler said that Beard's impact on the Sparks can't be overestimated.
"Seeing her on a daily basis, working with her, I've really been impressed with how she thinks the game on the defensive end," Agler said. "She's one of those rare players who is both a really good stopper on defense, but also is just as effective when she's roaming and being disruptive off the ball. And she also can pressure the ball vs. point guards.
"And she has the ability to defend people bigger than her. Alana does it with anticipation, quickness, length, deflecting passes."
Beard did not miss a game in 2016 and 2017, but she missed four this season with a groin injury. She felt the Sparks just didn't quite reach their potential, and it wasn't just because of the injuries and illness they dealt with.
"You always look back and pinpoint things you could have done better," Beard said. "But it was like we could never quite get over the hump. And it wasn't just one factor. We couldn't find a consistent foundation. We don't make excuses, but this was probably one of the toughest years I've been a part of."
Much of that was trying to rehab from the groin injury and not having much time to actually rest with the compacted schedule this season. As for whether she will continue to play, Beard, 36, said she will just wait to see how her body feels over the offseason.
"I don't have an answer now," she said. "Obviously, I don't want to go anywhere else but L.A."
Agler said he tells his younger players all the time to cherish the opportunity to play with Beard.
"They should just watch her and mimic her in regard to her preparation, her seriousness, her focus, her team mentality," he said. "She is really a unique player in that kind of way. She's critically valuable to us."