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Candace Parker is the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year

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This is the first such honor of Parker’s highly-decorated-career

Washington Mystics v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time in her 13-year career, Candace Parker is the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Parker won the 2020 award by earning 16 votes from a 47-person panel, as each media member only votes for one player. Seattle Storm wing Alysha Clark was second with 11 votes, and Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas — long heralded as the point-forward successor to Parker — was third with 10 votes. Four other players (Brianna Turner, Breanna Stewart, Napheesa Collier, and Natasha Howard) each received votes.

The AP honored Parker as the Defensive Player of the Year last week, but the WNBA presents its own awards. Three Sparks have now won Defensive Player of the Year. Lisa Leslie took home the honor in 2004 and 2008, and Alana Beard won back-to-back trophies in 2017 and 2018.

Parker has previously won Rookie of the Year and two MVP awards, but she said that this award took precedence, especially since her college coach, the late Pat Summitt, was the first to see Parker’s defensive potential.

“I definitely think that this is going to go above MVPs and Rookie of the Year,” Parker said during a Zoom press conference Thursday. “For me, the first coach that really challenged me and told me that I could be Defensive Player of the Year was Coach Summitt, and I hear her line, ‘Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.’ I know everybody from Tennessee that has hit me (up) has told me that you know she’s up there smirking saying you could have done this earlier. I think it’s better late than never.”

Chicago Sky v Los Angeles Sparks
Candace Parker led the league in rebounding and also chipped in 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game to win DPOY.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Rebounding was the key tenet of Parker’s DPOY candidacy. She led the league in rebounds (9.7) and defensive rebounds (8.0) per game, and Parker is better than just about anyone in league at cleaning the defensive glass and immediately getting the offense going on the break.

“That was a huge focus for me individually coming in is just making sure that we’re able to secure the rebound, finish the possession, be able get out in transition, because that’s when we’re at our best,” Parker said. “I feel like you got to utilize what you’re good at, and you got to make people play the way that you’re good at, and so I try to use my length and my quickness when I’m playing against size, and like I said, defensively, defensive rebounding.”

Parker hasn’t always been recognized as an elite defender. She has only ever made second-team all-Defense twice in her career, in 2009 and 2012, despite being fourth all-time in defensive win shares. Parker acknowledged that people think of her as an offensive player, and that she used that as motivation this season. She also credited Dennis Rodman’s advice in the Last Dance on how to read angles when collecting rebounds.

For the majority of the season, Parker was the steadying force in the middle of the L.A.’s defense, calling out actions for her teammates. She prevented easy passes into the post and stayed vertical on drives to rim. Her defensive game isn’t necessarily flashy in the way that her offense can be, but she still put together quite the highlight reel of key stops when the Sparks needed them most.

Perhaps the most memorable play was when Parker took a charge against Elizabeth Williams in overtime against Atlanta to secure the victory. She celebrated with the appropriate gusto of someone who only takes one charge a year and was happy to see it put to good use.

But Parker also had a couple of important stops in the fourth quarter to allow the Sparks to even get to overtime.

She was similarly effective protecting the basket against Dallas in the team’s next game, when L.A. erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn the victory.

Parker might have been at her best in a game that the Sparks lost to Seattle, though Parker convincingly won her matchup against Breanna Stewart down the stretch. Parker successfully contested Stewart’s jumpers and shots at the rim, and denied the ball to Stewart (the Storm’s no. 1 option) on the game’s final possession, even if Seattle ended up winning anyway.

The Sparks had the third-best defensive rating each of the last two seasons, but it was clear that Parker’s emergence this season gave them a much more versatile defense than a year ago. That credit is also shared with assistant coach Latricia Trammell, who is the team’s defensive coordinator and put the players in position to succeed on the defensive end. Those schemes don’t work without an anchor like Parker.

There was some worry that Parker was on the downslope of her career after a disappointing 2019. Instead, she delivered one of the most impactful seasons of her career, earning an honor that has eluded her for over a decade.

“I really don’t want to be known as just an offensive player, and, whether this changes the narrative or not, I hope going forward that I continue to play both sides of the ball,” Parker said.

“I’m really thankful, and I’m really proud of this, honestly, of this award.”