Jantel Lavender gives Sparks a game-changer off the bench

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 4, 2016

LOS ANGELES -- After winning a championship in Turkey last spring, Jantel Lavender couldn't wait for the WNBA season to get started.

The 6-foot-4 Los Angeles Sparks center has had a ton of success overseas -- in Poland and Italy as well as Turkey -- and played in the WNBA All-Star Game in 2015. Her confidence was absolutely soaring.

And then ... she found herself coming off the bench for the Sparks. It made sense, with Los Angeles starting three guards along with post players Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker. It just didn't feel that great for Lavender, initially.

She had been a reserve her first three seasons in the WNBA, then started most of 2014 and all of last season. It was hard to not feel like she was going backward.

But Lavender quickly made a crucial decision for herself and the Sparks. Not only would she accept being a reserve with positive attitude; she would be the best darn bench player in the WNBA this season. And that's exactly what happened.

"I just changed my perception," Lavender said. "I think our team can be great when you have good players coming off the bench who can try to be game-changers.

"I think a lot of times, ego gets in people's way. I want the best for my team, and whatever position I need to be in for that to happen, I'll do that."

Lavender won the WNBA's Sixth Woman of the Year award, and was presented her trophy Wednesday before the Sparks beat Chicago 95-75 in the opener of their semifinal series. That game was the perfect example of why this setup has worked so well for Los Angeles: Ogwumike, the league's MVP, Parker and Lavender combined for 69 points and 23 rebounds, while shooting 75 percent (28 of 37).

The Sky will try to do something to slow down those three on Friday in Game 2 of their series at Staples Center (ESPNews, 10 p.m. ET).

"She's very essential to our success," Parker said of Lavender. "I call her the microwave, because she comes in and immediately heats up. I'm proud of the reward she got for what she sacrificed."

Lavender averaged 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while playing 33.8 minutes per game last season. This year, she's averaging 9.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 19.4 minutes.

"It just takes somebody extremely unselfish and team-oriented," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "I don't know if there's anybody better about that, who I've been around, than Jantel is.

"It's not been easy, I'm sure. Because there have been times after games when I look at her stats and say, 'How come we didn't play her more?' But we have Nneka and Candace, and it's hard to take minutes away from them, too. But when Jantel comes into the game, we don't drop off at all."

Agler has followed Lavender's career from well before he was coaching her; they're both from Ohio, and Agler knew what a standout Lavender was in her high school days at Cleveland Central Catholic.

Lavender went to Ohio State, where she became the school's all-time leading scorer (2,818 points) and the Big Ten's career leader in rebounding (1,422). She was inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this month, making it to the ceremony in Columbus in between games at home against Atlanta and on the road at Seattle.

Proud Buckeye that she is, Lavender also acknowledges that things weren't always pleasant at Ohio State for her, especially early in her career. In her first season, 2007-08, she replaced the Buckeyes' previous star post player, Jessica Davenport. But she didn't feel welcomed by some of the older Buckeyes who weren't keen on a freshman being the team's best player.

Lavender ended up being the Big Ten player of the year all four seasons at Ohio State. Now a WNBA veteran, she has found the atmosphere around the Sparks to be supportive.

"This team is so mature and happy for everyone's success," she said. "We want the ball to go to where the hot hand is. We like and respect each other."

Lavender was the WNBA's No. 5 pick in 2011, and the Dallas Wings organization likely wishes it could go back in time and have a do-over with that draft. Then the Tulsa Shock, they took Australian center Liz Cambage as the No. 2 pick behind Maya Moore. Cambage has played just 53 games in the WNBA, none since 2013, and it's uncertain if she'll ever return.

Chicago took Courtney Vandersloot No. 3, and that has worked out; she played a key role in getting the Sky to this semifinal series. Minnesota, which already had hit the jackpot with Moore, missed with the No. 4 pick, center Amber Harris. But that mistake hasn't hurt the Lynx, who've since won three WNBA titles. However, missing on Lavender certainly hurt Tulsa/Dallas.

"It's her range at her size, and her ability to spot up, that can really make her hard to stop," Chicago coach Pokey Chatman said of Lavender. "I remember when she was in Italy, and I was coaching in Russia, and she torched us. And it's never changed. It's nice now that she's getting recognized, because she's been pretty spectacular for a few years now."

Overall, 2016 has been a good year for Lavender in many ways: She won a title in Turkey (where she'll be returning this winter), she won the Sixth Woman award and she celebrated her hometown Cavaliers finally ending Cleveland's 52-year title drought.

"Oh, my gosh, I am so happy for our city," she said. "People don't realize how much that means to us, and that's why I was so emotional about it. I'm always rooting for anything Cleveland."

Although in the WNBA, she's all purple and gold. In her six years in Los Angeles, Lavender has appeared in all of the Sparks' games but one, and that was back in her rookie season. Her durability and flexibility have been huge for this organization.

"I just love this group so much," Lavender said. "I feel like we can win a championship here."