In the middle of the second quarter on Saturday afternoon, Candace Parker got switched onto Natasha Cloud after a screen. Sensing a potential mismatch, Cloud put her head down and tried to get to the basket, but instead learned firsthand why Parker won Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Moving her feet and keeping her hands high, Parker stayed with Cloud and swatted her layup attempt away. Then, as if that wasn't enough, Parker picked up the loose ball, took a few dribbles and fired a fullcourt pass to Kahleah Copper for an easy layup.
Moments like that were exactly what the Chicago Sky were envisioning when they stunned everyone by stealing Parker away from the Los Angeles Sparks in free agency. In full, her debut with the team was just about perfect. Parker finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three blocks in a comfortable 70-56 win over the Washington Mystics.
"She gives us a lot with the three blocks defensively, and offensively being able to play-make from a big's point of view," Sky coach James Wade said. "So she should be the story, she's a great player and has been great in this league for a long time."
After a successful start to life back in Chicago, let's take a closer look at how Parker made an impact in every aspect of the game.
Parker wasn't known as a defensive-minded player earlier in her career and joked after the game that she can't believe everyone brings up defense when they talk about what she'll bring to the Sky.
"Rookie, first five years, first 10 years in the league if you said 'Candace is coming to the team and she's gonna bring defense' I think everybody would have gasped and laughed," Parker said. "So for me, I think it's funny to see people be like 'you're gonna bring defense to the Chicago Sky.'"
The way she's locked in on that side of the ball in recent years, however, is impossible to ignore. With her length, athleticism and understanding of the game, she's always had the tools to be an elite defender. And now that she's making that part of the game a point of emphasis, it shows.
Against the Mystics, she made strong stands in one-on-one situations with Tina Charles.
Off the ball, we saw the rim protection as a help defender with three blocks, including the play on Cloud above. She's also willing to sacrifice her body, drawing this charge late in the second quarter.
Parker's actual plays aren't the only way she makes an impact on the defensive end, however. At multiple points, the broadcast showed clips of a mic'd up Parker's constant communication with her teammates. On the court, she was talking them through coverages and directing traffic, and during stoppages she was encouraging them in huddles.
"From playing against Chicago I know how difficult they are to defend offensively in the halfcourt, and transition is ridiculous" Parker said. "Playing against them offensively wasn't always that difficult. I think they realized that, I realized that, and I think that we're all making a concerted effort to be better. I think that starts with communication, it starts with knowing the scheme... I'm gonna communicate, and I think that everybody is receptive. They're communicating with me and I think together we can continue to build defensively."
Parker has been one of the best passing forwards in the league ever since she was drafted in 2008, and her ability to facilitate will make the Sky even more difficult to defend. While they've been a great offensive team for the last few seasons, so much of their success was dependent on Courtney Vandersloot running the show, and without her they struggled. Parker gives them a much-needed secondary playmaker.
Early on in the halfcourt, this touch pass to Copper in the corner was superb.
But perhaps most importantly, Parker has the ability to rebound and go in transition, getting the Sky up the floor for easy buckets.
Of course, there's also the scoring aspect. For all her talent, Parker has really never been a huge scorer -- 16.9 points per game for her career and only 16 30-point games -- but she is consistent, versatile and efficient. And on a Sky team with so many offensive weapons, she'll be able to pick and choose her spots.
She finished a few buckets in the paint -- her first basket in a Sky uniform came on a dive to the basket out of a pick-and-roll -- got to the free throw line on multiple occasions and splashed three 3-pointers.
You don't want to overreact to opening night, but this is the kind of start to the Parker era that has everyone predicting the Sky to make a deep run in the playoffs. She's such a natural fit with this group, and their chemistry and flow should only get better as the season goes along.
"I love the game of basketball," Parker said. "Especially when I was younger, it didn't matter where it was being played, where the ball was gonna be bounced, I feel at home on the court. To actually be in your home jersey, feeling at home on a court, with players that you've played against, grown up playing with, you know it was joy... That's what it felt like out there tonight. It felt like home. It really did."