Sparks go for Candace Parker vibes, taking Tennessee's Rae Burrell in WNBA draft

Sparks go for Candace Parker vibes, taking Tennessee’s Rae Burrell in WNBA draft

The last time the Sparks drafted a player from Tennessee in the first round of the WNBA draft, things turned out all right.

Fourteen years after Candace Parker began her WNBA career with the Sparks, fellow Lady Volunteer Rae Burrell will make the trek to Los Angeles as the Sparks picked the 6-foot-1 guard ninth overall.

With Parker now in Chicago and the Sparks coming off their first season since 2011 without advancing to the postseason, Burrell hopes to live up to the two-time WNBA champion’s legacy.

“Candace, she came in and had an immediate impact and changed the game for them,” Burrell said Monday night. “I hope to do the same thing, just come in and come with that same grit and grind that she did, and to be half the player that she is.”

Burrell missed 12 games this season because of a knee injury and returned to average 12.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. Sparks coach and general manager Derek Fisher said he wasn’t deterred about the injury because he had Burrell, a second-team All-SEC performer as a junior, circled on his scouting report for years.

“We’ve prioritized length and versatility and being able to impact the game playing multiple positions on each side of the basketball this entire offseason and Rae is really, really a player that we think going forward can help us in that regard,” Fisher said .

The Sparks also picked Louisville guard Kianna Smith (16th overall), Connecticut’s 6-foot-5 forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa (19th) and Big West player of the year Amy Atwell out of Hawaii (27th).

After WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced Burrell’s name, the Las Vegas native hugged her parents and strode to the stage. She took a photo with Engelbert holding a Sparks jersey and waved to new teammate Nneka Ogwumike during an on-air interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe.

Ogwumike attended the draft and shared a table with former Sparks star Lisa Leslie and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. As part of the league’s first in-person draft in three years, prospects enjoyed predraft events like a tour of the Empire State Building and meetings with former players. Burrell said she spoke to Ogwumike, the players union president, briefly during a tour of the WNBPA’s offices.

“She was already being so helpful with me,” Burrell said. “So I’m excited to follow her lead as I go into this next phase of my life.”

Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard was the top overall pick of the Atlanta Dream, who traded up from No. 3 last week to grab the two-time SEC player of the year.

Smith, a 6-foot guard, averaged 12 points and 2.7 assists per game as a redshirt senior for Louisville, where she played for two years after transferring from California.

Nelson-Ododa was the Big East co-defensive player of the year in 2021 and was chosen first-team all-conference as a senior after leading the Huskies with 7.5 rebounds per game.

Atwell, a 6-foot guard, will join fellow Australian Liz Cambage in Los Angeles. Atwell jumped into the WNBA conversation this year after leading Hawaii with 17.8 points and 6.9 rebounds with a team-high 46 steals. She is the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers made (205) and single-season three-pointers (76).

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