If the future of the WNBA looks anything like today’s nationally-televised opener between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury, it will be one heck of a fun ride.
Historically, early-season WNBA games are often hard to watch. Even NBA teams take a while to begin clicking, and WNBA head coaches don’t have the luxury of having their entire team together for the full month of training camp. The Mercury got Diana Taurasi back only yesterday and Cappie Pondexter, as we were often reminded by ESPN on ABC broadcasters Dave Pasch and Carolyn Peck, slept but three hours last night. Imagine what Pondexter, who finished with 32 points, four three-pointers, seven assists and nary a turnover, might have done with a full night’s sleep!
Instead of a sloppy mess controlled by defense, the Sparks and Mercury treated us to a highly-entertaining game that wasn’t decided until Pondexter missed a potential tying three in the closing seconds.
Naturally, the big story was the play of Sparks rookie Candace Parker, who fell two assists shy of a triple-double in her WNBA debut. All Parker did was score 34 points, grab 12 rebounds and hand out eight assists. She was even better than advertised. Lisa Leslie returned from her year-long absence to post a double-double of her own with 17 points, 12 boards and four blocks.
Of course, we already knew Leslie and Parker would be great; the real question was the L.A. backcourt, and that wasn’t entirely answered in the opener. Starting guards Temeka Johnson and Marie Ferdinand-Harris combined to shoot 3-for-12 from the field and turn the ball over five times. The Sparks got effective play down the stretch from Murriel Page, but Page isn’t naturally a guard and doesn’t shoot the ball like one. Sidney Spencer had 14 points off the bench in the first half, includinf our threes, before sitting out the second half. Spencer will feast on the open looks created by Leslie and Parker, but isn’t quick enough to defend opposing guards.
The Mercury has to feel awfully good about putting up 94 points despite the limited practice time. To turn the ball over just 12 times in a fast-paced opener given those conditions is remarkable. Starter Wilnett Crockett (12 points, seven boards) and backup Le’Coe Willingham (four rebounds and strong defense) gave Phoenix solid play in Penny Taylor’s spot, but we also saw what could be problematic about using traditional posts in the Paulball system; Crockett and Willingham were stuck on the perimeter taking long jumpers at times, and that’s surely not their forte.
Besides Parker, the revelation of the game was Phoenix rookie
Yugo OhaYuko Oga. Just the second Japanese player in league history, Oha is a jolt of energy off the bench who will continue pushing the pace when she’s in the game at the point.
Officially, the Sparks won the game, but the real winner was the league. It’s hard to imagine new fans tuning in to see Parker and not coming away impressed with the quality of play. The WNBA’s 2008 slogan is “Expect Great.” In the opener, we got just that.