LOS ANGELES – Candace Parker accepted a pass, took two steps, then jammed the basketball over the rim and through the net with her right hand.
The Los Angeles Sparks had ended a recent practice, but their star player had stayed over for a little extra work.
“I feel good,” she said.
That’s not something Parker has been able to say often during her WNBA career.
Since her selection by the Sparks as the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, she has played in only 35 of a possible 68 regular-season games because of pregnancy and injuries.
Her last game was nearly a year ago, but Parker is healthy and happy as the Sparks open their WNBA season tonight against the Minnesota Lynx at Staples Center.
“To me, she’s picked up where she left off and added more to her game,” Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said.
That could be because of a vow Parker made.
After suffering a left-shoulder dislocation that required surgery 10 games into last season, Parker was sidelined as her team finished with a regular-season record of 13-21 and lost both its playoff games.
“When I come back,” she said during an interview last August, “I’m going to be a better teammate. I’m going to be a better basketball player, and the key is I’ve learned by listening. No matter who tells you instructions, you can learn something from everybody.”
So far, so good.
The Sparks have played only two preseason games since their training camp opened May 15, but forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said she already had seen a change in Parker.
“The younger Candace, depending on the situation, would go into a shell,” said Milton-Jones, a 12-year WNBA veteran. “She doesn’t put the wall up anymore. You can see the growth.”
Former Sparks player Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, a close friend since middle school, said Parker has become more vocal. Gillom said her star forward was acting like a leader.
Parker acknowledged that one of her biggest faults last season was that she was too hard on herself. Even though she averaged 20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds, she said when she missed a shot, she would get so upset that occasionally she would be too worked up to play defense effectively.
Parker, who is 6-foot-4 and can be a dominant force on both ends of the floor, has been the face of the league since she came into the WNBA in 2008. Her jersey immediately became the league’s top seller. She was the first WNBA player to be named most valuable player and rookie of the year in the same season.
In January 2009, Parker announced that she was pregnant. She missed the first month of the season after giving birth to her daughter and, against the wishes of her husband and doctor, returned to the court just six weeks after delivery.
“I told her it was too soon,” said her husband, New York Knicks forward Shelden Williams.
Although the Sparks reached the Western Conference finals, Parker felt she underachieved, averaging 13.1 points and 9.8 rebounds.
Still, she had high hopes for last season. But on June 13, while going up for an uncontested rebound, Parker sustained a dislocated left shoulder and immediately walked off the court, her face contorted with pain.
It was a familiar feeling. Parker had dislocated the same shoulder multiple times before, first during her senior year at Tennessee.
“I’ve been through childbirth, I’ve had an ACL (surgery), I’ve been through everything,” Parker said. “That is the most painful feeling.”
She couldn’t delay having surgery any longer.
Frustrated, she poured herself into rehabilitation five days a week, three hours a day.
She set small goals. After one week, she was able to change her baby’s diaper with one arm. After three months, she was able to shoot a basketball.
She was cleared to play in January for her Russian club team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and during her four months there, she helped lead her team to a league championship while competing against other top WNBA players.
Her Sparks teammates say Parker is now playing better than ever.
She’s even supplemented her repertoire of fancy spins and pump fakes with some new moves.
“I’ve been watching Dirk (Nowitzki) and what Kevin Durant does and trying to add that to my game,” Parker said.
But perhaps the greatest skill that she has recently acquired has nothing to do with scoring or defense. Even though she wants to win her first championship, it is no longer her priority.
Instead, she’s focused on something else.
“I want to be considered, when all is said and done, a great teammate,” Parker said.