Ohio State center Jantel Lavender drives around Penn State center Nikki… (Greg Bartram / US Presswire )
At the end of last season, the Sparks' Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones, weighed down by the bruises and fatigue that come from playing without a true center, pleaded for help.
Help is on the way. The Sparks on Monday selected 6-foot-4 center Jantel Lavender of Ohio State with the fifth overall pick in the WNBA draft.
The only player — man or woman — to be selected Big Ten Conference player of the year an unprecedented four times, Lavender averaged 22.8 points and 10.9 rebounds last season and is the school's all-time leading scorer (2,818 points) and the Big Ten's all-time leading rebounder (1,422).
The Cleveland native, who turns 24 next week, should provide a substantial inside presence for the Sparks, who finished with a 13-21 record but still made the playoffs despite losing Candace Parker to shoulder surgery halfway through the season. The Sparks also had the league's second-worst rebounding average (30.8).
Lavender, who at 210 pounds is a physical post player, also has an accurate mid-range jump shot, which should help take some of the pressure away from Parker and Thompson.
"She's definitely an inside presence to be reckoned with," Coach Jennifer Gillom said. "We're glad to have that presence that we've been lacking."
Lavender scored in double figures in each of her 136 games at Ohio State, an NCAA record.
"I was just totally elated when my name was called," Lavender said. "I just want to play my role and do whatever it takes to help the Sparks win a title."
With the 29th pick, the Sparks drafted Elina Babkina of Latvia. A 5-9 point guard, she plays for Lotos Gdynia in Poland and is averaging 12.5 points and 3.1 assists. The Sparks open their season against the Minnesota Lynx on June 3.
The Lynx, as expected, acquired Connecticut star Maya Moore with the No. 1 overall pick and Xavier's Amber Harris fourth overall. The Tulsa Shock drafted Elizabeth Cambage of Australia No. 2 and the Chicago Sky used the No. 3 pick to select Courtney Vandersloot of Gonzaga.