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Candace Parker and Deep South Classic Report

In much the same fashion as Memorial Day weekend's Tournament of
Champions, this past weekend saw the Deep South Classic at Duke, UNC and
NC State. A number of top high school girls were playing, with the
incomparable Candace Parker the brightest of lights. She was USA Today's
national player of the year as a junior last season, and put on quite a
show in both of the games I saw. There were also a number of younger
players that were of interest as well, so let's just go to the summary:

I saw a showdown between two of the top 30 players in the country:
guards Sparkle Davis and Wanisha Smith. Davis is from Atlanta and has
already committed to Auburn, while Smith moved from Ohio to Washington,
DC. Davis did not look like a top prospect in this game, missing most of
her shots badly. On the other hand, Smith was smooth and in control. She
wasn't a great shooter, but dominated the game action thanks to her
penetration, defense and passing. Of interest in this game was a rising
9th grader (!) named Mara Strickland. She's the younger sister of former
Maryland player Marche' Strickland and is quite advanced for her age.
Another fascinating young player was 6-5 Kelly Cain, from Georgia. She
was playing on a 15-and-under team and dwarfed everyone else. While her
sheer size made her tough to deal with, Cain displayed an impressive set
of skills. First of all, she was a pure back-to-the-basket center. As
such, she had a limited but formidable set of post moves. She has
excellent balance and very nimble feet, which allow her to softly pivot
and get a good look at the basket every single time she set up in the
post. Her signature shot was a turnaround pivot and bank shot. Frankly,
she didn't need a real drop-step or up-and-under considering her
competition, but that will have to come down the line. Cain has huge
hands and knows how to use them. She blocked at least 8 shots from
various angles despite possessing little lateral quickness. It was simply
a matter of knowing where to be at the right time. With her sure hands,
she also was able to simply pluck some passes out of the air or snatch
them up before they rolled out of bounds. And she did all this without
the benefit of any discernible leaping ability. If she concentrates on
her fitness in the next couple of years, she could truly be on her way to
greatness with her skill set. She's a young Shawntanice Polk at the

One of the most impressive rising seniors I watched was 5-10 Essence
Carson of New Jersey. Carson has a strong, wiry build and is a fierce
defender and rebounder. Her team easily won in the game I watched, so
most of her playing time was just in the first half, but she had 7 points,
5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. She took just 4 shots,
concentrating instead on terrorizing every opposing player on the
defensive end. She sent back shots, went hard to the boards, played a lot
of point guard and looked smooth doing it. Despite scoring just 7 points,
she dominated the game. UConn and Rutgers are both very interested in
her, among others. Her athleticism, her skill set, her court vision and
her overall aggressiveness would make her a fine addition to any program.

Time to move on to the main event: the team featuring 6-3 Illinois
native Candace Parker and 5-11 California wing Charde Houston. Parker is
the #1 player in her class by most analysts, and this class is regarded as
potentially the best of all time. Certainly, the rising senior class in
college (with Beard, Taurasi, Nicole Powell, the various Kansas State
stars, Tillis, Kelly Mazzante, Lindsey Whalen, etc) will be something to
live up to, but both the talent at the top and the quality depth in this
class means that every school in the country has a chance to get better.
Parker's first game was against a team from Georgia that featured Rashanda
McCants, the younger sister of the UNC star.

Parker and Houston were head and shoulders above the rest of their
teammates in terms of talent, and Parker was clearly a level above
Houston, who was obviously not used to playing with someone that much
better than she was. The Georgia squad was able to keep things close by
concentrating on shutting down Parker and Houston's teammates and
encouraging Houston to take long-range jumpers. They could do nothing to
stop Parker. In the first half (in a 32 minute game), Parker had 20
points on 7-12 shooting, including a couple of threes. She also managed 3
boards, 2 steals and an assist despite picking up 3 fouls. The only knock
on her in this game was her foul shooting--an ugly 7-16 on the unforgiving
rims of the Wilson Rec Center.

Let's break down her first half performance. Parker is a sturdy 6-3
with very long arms. She is neither skinny nor particularly thick,
looking very naturally toned and strong. Parker will need to add a little
more definition to her musculature in college, but her frame can
definitely support it. Parker can play any position on the floor, and do
it well. Her size allows her to fight for inside position, where her
superb feet do all the rest. She has an array of slithering post moves
and can get around most any defender under the basket. Parker is a potent
combination of grace, agility and power under the hoop and certainly
doesn't mind contact. What makes her an unstoppable force is her
ballhandling. From the top of the key, she can break down defenders and
use her quickness and size to get to the basket against nearly anyone.
This is her bread-and-butter move, where she scores nearly every time or
gets fouled. Then there's her jump shot: high-arching and smooth. She'll
pull up from 15' or from three and sink them easily. While not an elite
shooter, it's certainly no liability. If she continues to work on it,
there will be nothing in the world that can stop her. Same goes for her
handles; elite defenders can strip her as she drives, but a more nuanced
crossover will fix that. It is a bit ridiculous to talk about developing
a crossover for a 6-3 player in the women's game, but there are simply no
limits when it comes to Parker.

Parker is a very good passer and is quite willing to give up the ball.
She had a gorgeous transition pass for a score and another that led to a
foul. Her defense is also very good; perhaps not as advanced as her
offensive game at this point, but it's clear that she works hard. She
wound up blocking 3 shots in the second half and forced 3 steals. Parker
also took a charge, proving that she's not too much of a superstar to do
the dirty work. (And this was a full-on, ram-you-into-the-seats, kind of
charge.) Her willingness to get physical is another big positive of her
game, and that's at both ends of the court.

So Parker works hard, is astonishingly versatile, and can only be
stopped by a very few. What else does she have? Well, she's one of the
greatest leapers I've ever seen. The way she soars to the basket to go
after rebounds or block shots is frightening for a player of her size.
Throw in the kind of charisma and grace that only the greatest possess,
and a willingness to take clutch shots, and you have a truly astonishing
basketball player. This is a once-in-a-decade player, or perhaps even
rarer. Does she have weaknesses? Her foul shooting was certainly spotty
this weekend, and her jumper, while good, is not yet refined to
perfection. How she will fit in with other good players is an excellent
question, because her talent is that overwhelming. She will need some
mature teammates who know the score and will let her excel. At the same
time, Candace will need to understand that she can't win every game by
herself. If she can do that and winds up on a great team, there's no
telling what could be accomplished, because guarding Parker will be every
opponent's first priority. If she's teamed up with others who can really
fill it up, her team will be tough to stop.

Back to her game against the Georgia 76'ers, Parker missed a number of
easy shots in the second half, only going 4-11 from the floor. She
stepped up on the boards and made some clutch plays. When the Sixers
pulled within 2 with about two minutes to go, she unleashed her quick
first step and steady dribble and simply zipped to the basket for a
contested layup. Even when she was missing free throws, she hit a crucial
foul shot with seconds left that put her team up by 4 points, effectively
ending the game.

Let's take a look now at Houston. The best comparison to make is that
she's a bigger, more physical Rometra Craig. While a number of scouts
have her ranked quite high, she has a number of limitations to her game.
She's not a great shooter, not hitting anything outside of 10' in the two
games I saw her in. She's only an average ballhandler, turning the ball
over several times. Houston basically has two offensive moves that she
uses over and over: a blindingly quick spin move that almost always frees
her up for a drive or short shot; and a pull-up jumper from about 10' that
she loves to take on the run, at the very top of her (considerable) leap.
Those are the negatives. The positives include world-class speed,
remarkable strength, aggressiveness at both ends of the floor and superb
defense & rebounding. Against the Georgia Sixers, she was 6-17 from the
floor (including 0-4 from three) and 4-8 from the line, but had 11
rebounds, 4 steals and a block. The bottom line is that while Houston is
an excellent player, she's not quite in Parker's class. In fact, I
thought that Essence Carson had a more impressive showing in the game
that I saw.

I knew the second game I saw Parker in would be a truer test of her
abilities, going up against a loaded Miami Suns team. The star of that
team is 6-4 Sylvia Fowles, a top 5 center who absolutely lives up to the
hype. Fowles is extremely powerful, quick and skilled, with a post game
that is exquisitely refined for such a young player. On a team that
emphasizes a half-court offense, she will be a dominant college player.
Her best teammate was 6-2 forward Erlana Larkins, another South Floridian.
Larkins is a top 15 player who is also quite versatile and a tremendous
defender. Her job in this game was to slow down Parker as much as
possible, and she did a superb job. Larkins is looking at UConn, Duke,
UNC and several other schools, while Fowles has Tennessee, Florida and LSU
on her list. Houston's leader is Texas, though she is also interested in
Duke. Parker has a huge list of schools but it is suspected that Duke and
Tennessee are among her favorites.

The Miami team opened up a big lead early on as Larkins blocked 2 of
Parker's shots. Larkins wound up with 11 points (on 5-8 shooting), a few
rebounds, a steal and the two blocks. Most of all, she shadowed Parker
the entire night. Parker went to her best move, her devastating
dribble-drive, and Larkins matched her step-for-step and blocked it.
Later, Parker pulled up for three, but her release was a second slow,
allowing the block to occur there as well. Parker started off 0-5 in the
half but went to some of her other tricks, continuing to go hard to the
basket. Her offensive woes didn't stop her from playing hard on defense,
as she blocked 2 shots, got a steal and had 5 rebounds in the first half.
Parker was also trying to stop Fowles inside, a difficult task indeed.
Meanwhile, Houston was also struggling, going 2-5 from the floor and
turning the ball over twice.

Their teammates suddenly started taking advantage of all the attention
Houston and Parker were drawing, and began to catch up. In fact, a missed
shot by Parker as she was trying to race down the court as the clock was
winding down in the first half prevented them from taking a halftime lead.
Parker went to work in the post in the second half, scoring over Fowles a
couple of times. Houston also really stepped up, scoring 10 second half
points and playing excellent defense. With under a minute left, Miami was
running a little stall. Parker somehow got into a seemingly safe passing
lane, grabbed the ball out of the air with one of her huge hands (another
Parker virtue), and zoomed in for a layup that tied the game. Miami
scored again quickly, and Parker missed a last second shot defended by
Fowles and Larkins. It was a tremendous effort by both teams, with
Miami's overall talent level being the difference.

The folks who were running the scoreboard and keeping stats were Duke
basketball players. At this game, Iciss Tillis was working the scoreboard
and Caitlin Howe was keeping stats. (An aside: she just started walking
two weeks ago.) Alana Beard, Mistie Bass, Lindsey Harding, Wynter
Whitley, Monique Currie and Sheana Mosch (who appeared to have just
popped into town) were also in attendance. (With so many young players
at this tournament, they had a non-stop line of girls asking for photos
to be taken and programs & t-shirts to be signed. Naturally, they
graciously signed everything.) During halftime, the players went out on
the court and shot around. Caitlin Howe was draining threes hopping
around on one leg. Mistie Bass is in incredible shape right now. The
workout regimen that she started after the season ended has really firmed
her up.

After Parker lost, Tillis came over and the two started playing
one-on-one. They were shooting threes, driving on each other and
generally goofing off. Things started to get a bit more serious as their
game went on. After Tillis scored, Parker drove baseline right, rose up,
kept rising and rising and rising and threw down a dunk right on a stunned
Tillis. Everyone left in Cameron (a good 400 people) exploded in amazed
cheers. Mistie and Alana ran over to hug Candace as Iciss stood there
with her mouth agape in shock, a "what just happened here" look on her
face. Iciss took the dunk in good humor, as she, Alana, and Candace posed
for many pictures together. Later, Alana was driving to the basket and
throwing up passes for Candace to hammer down, thrilling the crowd.
Parker has dunked in high school and I certainly wouldn't be surprised to
see her do it again soon. Regardless of where she ends up, this will be a
player you have to watch. Hopefully she'll continue to work hard, because
there is just no limit to what she can accomplish.