Parker the best -- and only getting better

In 32 seasons at Tennessee, coach Pat Summitt's program has produced 12 Olympians and 19 Kodak All-Americans.

Yet according to the six-time NCAA champion, the best is yet to come.

"Candace Parker has a chance to be the best to ever play this game," Summitt told ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman in a phone interview earlier this week. "And if she isn't, I'll be very disappointed."

Best ever? Better than Miller? Holdsclaw? Taurasi? Maybe someday. For now, Parker is the best current player in women's college basketball. As we open the new season, she starts as the ESPN.com 2006-07 Preseason Player of the Year, as voted on by ESPN's Lieberman and Beth Mowins and ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Melanie Jackson.

Parker's arsenal starts with her versatility. Tennessee's roster lists her as a guard, forward and center.

"We used to marvel about Katie Smith's ability to play four positions on the floor," Lieberman said, "but Parker can go all five."

After sitting out what should have been her freshman season in 2004-05 as her knee recuperated, Parker started last season at the power forward position. It wasn't long before she drifted to the 3, and the 6-foot-4 sophomore even filled in at point guard at times when Alexis Hornbuckle was hurt.

But Parker doesn't just have the ability to play every position -- she excels at them. The most multidimensional player in the game, Parker averaged 17.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals. She also shot 55.2 percent from the field and 72.9 percent at the foul line.

"She can penetrate, post you up, play a face-up game … " said Lieberman, a Hall of Famer. "Candace has the handle to break an opponents' press and can even be effective at the point of your press."

Oh yeah, and Parker can dunk. In Tennessee's first-round rout of Army in March, Parker became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game. She actually did it twice, and the second -- a baseline jam off a give-and-go with Nicky Anosike -- was even more entertaining than the first -- a one-handed breakaway.

"What impresses me is how well Parker handles pressure, seems unfazed by what's happening around her and wants the ball in key situations," Mowins said.

Parker must have felt plenty of pressure in September. She was the only collegian on Team USA's World Championship team (which won bronze in Brazil) and became the youngest player to suit up for the U.S. national team since 1994.

Summitt insists Parker has "improved significantly" since the end of last season, something she attributes to Parker's time with Team USA.

"I would say that the USA Basketball experience was a tremendous one for her," said Summitt, adding that former Lady Vols Tamika Catchings and Michelle Snow took Parker under their wings while in Brazil. "They paid close attention to her as she was making the adjustment of going into the international game and playing with very experienced players.

"That's where she really grew as a player. She's definitely initiating more physical contact in the paint instead of being finesse. She's imposing her will in the paint, and we need that."

The fact she was getting the chance to play alongside some of her idols didn't escape Parker. But she wasn't content.

"When I left for training camp, Pat told me to enjoy the experience but to reach my goals. She said, 'Do not back down.' And I think that's one of the things that they respected. I played hard and never backed down," Parker told Lieberman. "I wanted to fit in with everybody, but it was important for me to respect everybody and not just sit around and be in awe of all those players."

Parker, in fact, got plenty of opportunity to impress everyone on the world stage. With Team USA staples Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith sitting out the event, Parker averaged 19.2 minutes at the World Championship. Although she didn't start any of the U.S. women's nine games, Parker finished third in scoring (12.8 ppg) and second in rebounding (8.4). She also set a record for American women at the World Championship with 14 blocks, which surpassed the old mark of 11 set by three-time Olympian Katrina McClain-Johnson in 1990.

"One of most amazing parts of her game was her willingness to learn," Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault, who was an assistant coach for Team USA in Brazil, told Lieberman. "She asked a lot of questions. She talked a lot about the game."

Another area of Parker's game she has focused on since last season is defense. It's a must if you play in Knoxville, but something Summitt thought Parker could improve on.

"Defense is a commitment," said Summitt, who enters this season with an NCAA Division I record (for men's and women's basketball) 913 wins. "She had all the physical tools but not the mental commitment to play it. Now, her defense has picked up and she can defend 94 feet up and down."

Does Parker realize how good she is? That she can make history, not just be part of it in the women's game?

"I know I can have an impact on the game, but I know I still have a lot to prove. One of the most important things I've been told is to play hard all the time, regardless of who we're playing," she said. "I've been very lucky. I've developed life-long friendships through this game, traveled around the world. It's all been because of basketball, and I have a responsibility to do my part now because of the pioneers before me and what they've done."

Of course, helping Tennessee win its first national title since 1998 also probably ranks high on Parker's to-do list. It's something another SEC star, Seimone Augustus (who incidentally was ESPN.com's Preseason Player of the Year the past two seasons), wasn't able to do in three trips to the Final Four with LSU.

Mowins said a championship would help cement Parker's legendary status down the line.

"Parker deserves tremendous praise for her ability and versatility," Mowins said. "Now let's see if she can match Diana Taurasi's ability to elevate the play of her teammates and win national championships."

Who knows exactly what Parker will end up doing, but Summitt has an idea.

"I am going out on a limb saying that she could be the best player to ever play this game," Summitt said. "But I don't feel like that branch will break."

Thibault compared Parker to Kevin Garnett because of her versatility, length and athleticism.

"Parker is changing how we view the game right now," he added. "Even though her outside game is still evolving, she's dominant around the basket. She's an impact player at any level and is revolutionizing women's basketball."

Still, it's not these sorts of predictions or praise that affect Parker most. It's not the accolades or the way fans cheer when she dunks the ball.

"One of the coolest things for me was when I came into the [Tennessee] locker room and there was this little boy wearing my uniform, pretending to dunk," Parker recalled. "He ran up and hugged me, and I thought, 'How cool is that?' I realized that we're not just affecting little girls."

How cool is Parker?