Parker Affects Game Like No Other


Candace Parker has been a matchup nightmare for years now. In high school, she was the Naismith, Gatorade and USA Today National Prep Player of the Year in 2003 and 2004, and Gatorade Illinois State Player of the Year three years in a row from 2002 to 2004. From there, she headed to Tennessee, where, for two years in a row, she was National Player of the Year (by every major award committee), an NCAA champion, and the Final Four Most Valuable Player. In 2008, the Sparks drafted her first overall and she went on to win both MVP and Rookie of the Year, a feat only seen twice before in American basketball history, and a first for the WNBA. Since then, she has added another MVP, a championship, Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and numerous other accolades in the WNBA, Olympics, and overseas.

Despite her impressive resume, Parker is incredibly disrespected. Perhaps it’s her fiery play style. Perhaps it’s the influx of new talent into the league. Whatever it may be, Parker stopped caring long ago. She has never been anything other than herself. Through trials and tribulations, insult and injury, Candace Parker has prevailed and came out stronger than before.

The 2021 season has been no different. After leaving the Sparks after 12 years, she returned home, signing with the Chicago Sky as a free agent. The addition of Parker immediately vaulted the Sky into contender status. However, the season has been far from smooth sailing early on. Parker suffered an ankle injury that kept her sidelined for an extended period. In her absence, the Sky struggled mightily, going on a seven-game losing streak.

As soon as Parker returned, the Sky returned to their winning ways. Their most recent win over the New York Liberty extended their streak to six. Her return turned the Sky’s season back around, just as her absence derailed it. Her impact shows up in every measurable way. Since returning, the Sky have only given up 80 or more points twice, while not scoring less than that yet. Their turnovers have settled down. They have shot significantly better from the field over their past six games.

All that, and Candace has truly only had one “vintage” performance so far in this stretch. In their latest game, Parker put up a monster statline:

It is no coincidence that the Sky won this game big. But, if this was Candace’s first big performance, how is it so easy to point to her as the main reason for their turnaround? The answer is simple:

Candace Parker affects the game in ways no other player can.

That’s right. Candace Nicole Parker remains the WNBA’s premier matchup problem. In year 13. Six games after returning from an ankle injury. Not Jonquel Jones, who has been fantastic and is the MVP frontrunner. Not Breanna Stewart, who might be the most decorated winner in women’s basketball history. Not Sabr- you get the point.

Let’s take a look at how she does it, using her most recent performance as evidence.

Candace’s Masterclass: Offense

Parker has long been the definition of a point forward (or center, even), and is an incredibly complete offensive player. She can score outside, inside, and anywhere in between. On top of that, she’s one of the most gifted passers ever, seeing the court better than most point guards. The Sky have no shortage of offensive firepower, but Parker is easily the most versatile offensive threat they have. Parker can seamlessly switch between a variety of roles in a single possession, from offensive initiator, to post-up threat, to even just a decoy. Regardless of role, Parker is always a threat, something the Sky know and use to their advantage multiple times each game.

As a Scorer

Points only tell part of the story, but they are often the center of attention. Parker scored 23 of them this game, in a variety of ways.

Parker has always had a great post game, and can score effectively in either the high or low post. Her post fadeaway is deadly, as the clip below shows. She acts as the screener for Kahleah Copper, then as Copper gives and goes, it clears out the elbow area for Parker to go to work. She calmly gets to her spot and knocks down the shot.

Exactly two minutes later, Parker is the recipient of a back screen from Diamond DeShields, giving her position in the low post. She works her way to the middle of the paint and pump fakes toward her right shoulder (the same shoulder she hit the initial fadeaway over). Her defender bites, hard, leaving her with an easy up-and-under finish inside.

By this point in the game, Candace was feeling it, and this possession showed it. She isolated Rebecca Allen after faking a handoff to DeShields. She unleashes a behind-the-back, between the legs dribble, crossover, then another between before driving, planting, then turning over her right shoulder (again) to finish with the left hand inside. The Liberty sacrificed size for mobility by putting Allen on Parker this game. Imagine her doing that against a traditional big (or just Youtube it).

As A Screener

Candace’s versatility makes using her as a screener incredibly difficult to stop. Is she popping out for the shot? Is she gonna post up if the defenders switch? Defenses constantly have their hands full when the Sky include her as a screener. Keep your eye on her here:

The play starts with Parker and Ruthy Hebard setting staggered screens for Allie Quigley. After Quigley passes around to Copper, Candace rotates up to screen for Copper. Betnijah Laney switches onto Parker on the roll, who proceeds to establish position for the entry lob. Three Liberty players end up surrounding Parker, but it doesn’t matter. She rebounds her initial miss and lays it in.

This play is the exact opposite, but just as deadly. Parker and Vandersloot run a quick pick and pop early in the possession. Onyenwere is slow on the closeout, and Candace makes her pay.

Candace’s Masterclass: Transition

Perhaps the most exciting element of this Sky team is their transition play. Kahleah Copper and Diamond DeShields are blurs on the break and are stronger than most of their matchups, and now they have another elite passer to get the ball to them. What makes Candace different is her ability to immediately turn defense into offense. When she rebounds, she’s looking up court before she has even fully caught the ball, and doesn’t need many dribbles to throw the pass:

Get the stop, rebound, turn, and pass. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

The Sky’s defensive scheme allows Candace to spend a lot of time focusing on help defense and rebounding, which is important as she returns to speed from her injury. She primarily hovers on the block, regardless of her matchup.

In this case, she’s covering Michaela Onyenwere, a 37% shooter coming into the game. As Allen drives, you can see Parker angle herself to cut off the passing lane, while also shading over to contest a potential shot attempt. As a result, Allen kicks to the other corner, and Whitcomb misses the shot. Yet again, Parker rebounds and immediately transitions to offense, sprinting up court looking to make a play. The offensive result is a quick give and go with Courtney Vandersloot that nets Candace an easy look inside.

The Epitome of a Leader

Candace Parker’s leadership is nothing new, and it was on display even while she was out. Leadership from the sidelines and leadership on the court are two different things, though, and have significantly different effects. Obviously the Sky have welcomed the return of her poise on the court, but there was one moment in the New York game that stuck out:

That’s a pretty lengthy conversation between Candace and Sabrina Ionescu, and a positive one. We see players talking amongst each other all the time, but that was pretty obviously a teaching moment. Whatever was said, it’s cool to see a star of Candace’s level talking to a budding star like that in the middle of the game.

Even Candace’s Failed Plays Display her Greatness

Parker was so dialed in against New York, that even some plays that didn’t have the best final results displayed her impact.

Here, Candace starts as a defensive rebounder, and immediately turns into the offensive initiator. She brings it up, dishes off to Sloot, then becomes the post-up threat. After receiving the entry pass, she resumes the role of the playmaker, this time attempting a pass to a cutting Copper. Sami Whitcomb was able to break this one up, but that’s a look that will be there a lot for Chicago this season, and will work pretty often.

Here, Candace starts as the backline defender in the Laney-Shook pick-and-roll. After shading over to stop that action, she closes out on Rebecca Allen and doesn’t allow her to shoot the corner three. She sticks with Allen on her dribble drive, not allowing her to shoot the short jumper Allen initially wanted. The Liberty get a decent look that doesn’t fall, leading to a rebound. Candace immediately looks up the court, takes three dribbles, and finds Copper on the cut.

The result is an offensive foul, but the entire play had Parker’s fingerprints on it.

This possession was one better entry pass away from going in the scoring category, but alas, here we are. Candace starts by helping Sloot up top, then transitioning to screening for Kahleah Copper. The action allows Candace to get Sabrina Ionescu in the post, and the ball movement puts the ball in Stef Dolson’s hands, who has the perfect angle for the entry pass. Candace fumbled the ball a bit, allowing Rebecca Allen just enough time to come help Ionescu. Parker manages to recover the ball, make a pass fake to Sloot that Sami Whitcomb bites just hard enough on to open up the cross court pass to Copper.

The shot doesn’t fall, but there isn’t another big in the W that makes that pass.


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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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