Candace Parker is retired, but her WNBA impact is still visible every night

After a wildly successful career that left an imprint on three decades of the WNBA, Candace Parker officially retired from basketball just prior to the start of training camp for the 2024 season.

On a personal level, I — probably like many of you reading this — have known who Candace Parker was since I was in grade school, seeing her highlights from Tennessee when I watched SportsCenter in the mornings. Even prior to being fully tapped into the WNBA, Parker was a star, celebrity, and part of the ether of the pinnacle of sports in my mind. To see her career end feels surreal after watching her play basketball for just about as long as I can remember watching the sport.

I didn’t fully grasp or understand what I was witnessing from afar, but it was palpable that there was something different and special about Parker. You don’t fully appreciate a 70-5 record with back-to-back National Championships until you’ve witnessed more and find a deeper understanding of history as you age and become aware of just how rare success at that level is.

I’d spend the next near two decades growing up and connecting those moments to my own, whether by watching highlights, seeing clips, and reading stories about her dominance and perseverance.

There will never be another Candace Parker.

Among the things that made Parker most unique, though, was not just her reach and ability to impact diehard fans, but also how she opened up a whole new audience and generation of fans to women’s basketball. It’s something that I’m not sure is fully appreciated at present, and is difficult to quantify, but perhaps is best captured by our friends at Across the Timeline, the best resource for contextualizing any record in women’s basketball: Any time a milestone or statistical feat is achieved, the list of prior people to achieve the mark is almost always is a handful of players… and Candace Parker. It never fails.

So while Parker will not physically be on the court in the WNBA moving forward, her impact on the game, the players who came after her, and what it means to be a star will live on. Now more than ever, what the WNBA game has evolved into can be viewed as a sort of love letter to her career and the significance of her impact.

Parker put forth the greatest rookie season in WNBA history, and one of the finest rookie years pro sports has ever seen.

The Los Angeles Sparks were still one of the better teams in the league after a dynastic run to start the 2000s, making the Conference Finals six out of eight seasons prior to 2007, including 2 WNBA Championships. Franchise icon Lisa Leslie missed the entirety of the 2007 season due to pregnancy, and WNBA legend Chamique Holdsclaw retired just 5 games into the season (She would come out of retirement for the 2009 and 2010 seasons). The Sparks would finish 10-24 on the year, earning the top pick in the 2008 Draft, selecting Parker.

The situation Parker stepped into is key in understanding how impactful her rookie season was. It’s not unheard of for rookies to come in and produce at a high level, finding ways to get their games off and acclimate. It is, however, exceedingly rare to be able to come in and make a high-level impact on a team with championship aspirations and established stars.

Consider this now-prescient quote from the legendary Carolyn Peck during the Nationally Televised broadcast of Parker’s first pro game when asked how good Parker could be.

“The theme of the WNBA is ‘expect great,’ and I think Candace Parker is going to be a great player in the WNBA… it’s because of her versatility, but I think it’s because she’s also got great talent.”

Parker had remarkably high expectations off the bat, and somehow exceeded them when she won the MVP award in 2008, the only rookie to ever do so. It’s also worth noting that Parker finished tied for fourth place in Defensive Player of the Year voting, which Leslie herself won.

Her first bucket in the WNBA was emblematic of what made her a special talent from the get-go, and in the history of the game.

Ripping and running in transition as a 6’4 forward was not something commonplace in the mid-2000s. Now, you can see that nightly, as a multitude of players who grew up watching Parker, developing in the era of young stars she inspired and the game she influenced with her greatness. It’s impossible not to think of Candace every time I watch Breanna Stewart bring the ball up off of a steal or rebound.

Parker led the Sparks in scoring and assists, and the league in rebounding. That speaks greatly to her versatility. She could ostensibly play every position in the frontcourt, while also running the offense like a point guard with her floor vision and playmaking. The Sparks didn’t have a true point guard on the 2008 roster, so they fully leaned into Candace’s ability to tilt and invert offense as an offensive engine at the forward spot. When you watch Alyssa Thomas play as a floor general at the 4 for the Connecticut Sun, again, it invokes images of Parker.

Basketball has increasingly become a game of creating mismatches and space and capitalizing upon them. Candace was too quick for centers to guard. Too long and strong for 3’s to guard. Often she was too skilled for most 4’s to guard. She was excellent at drawing help and creating easy offense from there.

In her rookie season, she finished with a 58.2% true-shooting percentage, the best gauge of efficiency in basketball. League average efficiency in 2008 was 51.1%, which is wild considering that Parker led the Sparks in field goal attempts while scoring so effectively. When A’ja Wilson nails a running hook against a smaller forward, dusts a center off the bounce, or kicks the ball out for an assist after a double team, again, Parker’s impact is felt

DeLisha Milton-Jones, one of the best defenders in league history, returned to the Sparks in 2008 after a three-year stint with the Mystics.

While LA’s offense was subpar, their defense was fantastic, finishing with the secondbest defensive rating in the 2008 season, which they rode to the Conference Finals. The trio of Milton-Jones, Leslie, and Parker created an absurd amount of havoc for opposition, leading the league in blocked shots. However, it was the modernity of how they played that stands out in watching back.

Switching on screens has existed for decades, but has seen its biggest surge as a more base-level scheme in the past half decade. The Sparks used it greatly to their advantage at a time when it wasn’t routine to see centers switching onto the perimeter. Candace’s defense is still the most underappreciated aspect of her game (it’s absurd that she didn’t get voted All-Defense in 2022). She could guard anyone and everyone in a pinch, containing guards on the perimeter, stifling forwards in the post, and walling off the best post players at the rim. Her help defense and communication set the tone and amplified those around her at every stop.

Her versatility and effectiveness only improved while she continued to round out her game as her career wore on, becoming a more consistent distance shooter, refining her passing, and adding more and more to her scoring bag. Parker entered the league as a great player and built upwards from that foundation her entire career; The 2016 and 2017 Finals series’ with the Lynx are unforgettable. Returning to her hometown of Chicago to win the first Championship in the Sky’s history, during an incredibly improbable postseason run, is etched in my mind. The 2023 Las Vegas Aces played some of the greatest basketball we’ve seen televised this side of the century prior to Parker’s season-ending injury.

Every moment of the past 15 years in the WNBA and women’s basketball writ large is interwoven with Parker’s impact: Over half of the league’s existence is permeated with her own story and career.

When we speak of the greatest players to ever touch the court, Candace Parker’s name ought to be mentioned in the first breath. Not just for her immediate impact on the hardwood, but also for the lasting legacy she imparted onto the game. Even though Parker is retired, and we won’t see her take another fadeaway, we will see her in glimpses of the majority of the players grew up in the game she changed.

So while Parker may not be playing anymore, if you look closely, you can still see her every night.

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