During the Los Angeles Sparks’ game against defending champion Phoenix Mercury earlier this week, the Staples Center emcee started belting out a familar refrain fairly early in the action.
“JAN-tel LAV-ender!” he boomed, as the fifth-year forward put up another two points. She would lead the Sparks to victory with 19 points and 11 rebounds – her ninth double-double of the season, which ties her for first in the WNBA.
That kind of performance has become typical of Lavender over the last two seasons, as she has emerged as a solid role player and the imperative leader of a team that has struggled for wins of late. Currently she averages 15 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, behind only Nneka Ogwumike in both categories, and also Kristi Toliver on the point scale.
For a while this season, however, Lavender lead in both categories as Ogwumike missed the first four games with an injury, Toliver missed the first six playing overseas, and sharp-shooter Alana Beard has missed 14 games with a left foot injury.
“She’s the only player from last year’s team who played all eight of our first games this season,” General Manager Penny Toler said of Lavender. “This year we’ve had all these injuries and absences – Candace (Parker), Kristi, Alana, Nneka. Jantel has been central for us.”
It’s a role Lavender has played before, at Ohio State, where her resume reads like a wish list: she is the only player in Big Ten history to win conference player of the year four times; she’s the owner of the Ohio State record for points, rebounds, games played and started, field goals made and attempted; and she won three Big Ten crowns and went to four NCAA Tournaments.
Drafted fifth in 2011 by the Sparks, Lavender’s emergence as a pro player began in earnest last year, as she averaged 11.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game playing both post positions. She was acknowledged yesterday when she was named an All-Star Game reserve, to fill in for injured players.
For an athlete who tends to fly under the radar, it was a big nod. For Lavender’s teammates and coaches, it was no surprise at all.
“She has all-star characteristics,” Beard said. “She’s one of those individuals that keep a team together, with her personality.”
“She’s also a player that doesn’t come in this league very often being as versatile as she is, and at the same time having so much strength. She can just flat-out play.”
Lavender had a stellar career as a Buckeye, leading the team with an average of 17-22 points per game every year she was there. But when she was drafted by Los Angeles, Lavender suddenly found herself playing behind other star athletes like Parker, Toliver, and veterans Delisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson. There was an adjustment period.
“In college I had that role of being a go-to player,” Lavender said. “Obviously in my transition to being a professional, it was hard at first.”
Toler said it was the luck of the draw.
“Sometimes fans miss all that Jantel does because of the all-stars on our team,” Toler said. “If she was with any other team, she’d be an all-star every year.”
Lavender averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game her first year, and did slightly better her second season. But what has really impressed her coaches and teammates is her work ethic. She has improved steadily every year of her professional career.
Beard says Lavender is intense.
“She comes into practice and I ask her, ‘Tel, are you OK?’ and she says ‘yeah, I just have to get it going,'” Beard said. “That’s how she is, and it’s a cool thing to see.”
Ogwumike said Lavender is appreciated.
“She’s an amazing teammate and she works hard,” Ogwumike said. “Her hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s very important people know she’s an important asset on both ends of the floor.”
Sparks coach Brian Agler characterized Lavender as a gamer.
“She comes to practice every day, works hard and competes. She doesn’t like to be out,” he said. “To be a great player in this league, you have to have that kind of work ethic; you have to want to be on the floor.”
Lavender’s former coach at Ohio State, Jim Foster, said she has always had a hunger to improve.
“Jantel has always been a player who maximized her time in the gym,” Foster said. “A long list to get better every day was her make up.”
Another strong Lavender asset is her relentless consistency. She didn’t miss a game in college, and she hasn’t missed one as a pro since September 3, 2011. She’s currently third in franchise history for most consecutive games played.
Lavender improved in her third year for the Sparks, and then last season she was third on the team in both points and rebounds per game – what Agler called “a break out year.” Much of that was due to playing for Poland powerhouse Wisla Can Pack, which gave Lavender a lot of valuable playing experience and confidence.
“Playing overseas is where I got my comfort zone back,” Lavender said. “I started being the go-to player again.”
“As I’ve been in the WNBA, I’ve come to understand positioning, where I need to go on the court, and how I need to use my body in play. It’s tuning into the ball, rebounding better. I try to focus and use my body a little bit better.”
Her renewed focus came at a crucial time. Prior to the season, Parker announced she would sit out for a while to rest. The injuries and absences of starters that followed meant the Sparks were short on personnel. But Lavender stepped up.
“Jantel’s been consistent from day one,” Agler said. “When we didn’t have Nneka and Kristi, people were defending her with multiple players, and she still produced.”
Beard said she always knew her teammate had it in her.
“I’ve been with her for three full seasons now, and you always see glimpses of how great she really is, but she’s never had the chance to really show it,” Beard said. “This year she is more tuned in because she knows the team is depending on her, and I don’t think she’s had that since college.”
“Tel has great leadership qualities. She’s really stepping up to the challenge this year, and I couldn’t be happier to see it.”
Toler said Lavender has her priorities in order.
“She’s a great teammate and a great player. She doesn’t care about all the extras. For her, it’s just, whatever it takes to win. That’s what’s important to her,” Toler said.
Another cornerstone in Lavender’s development is her diversified skill set, which has become especially valuable this season.
“What makes her tough to guard is her versatility,” Agler said. “She can step out and shoot 18-foot jump shots. She’s good with her back to the basket. She’s good in isolations. She’s got great mobility, as well.”
“Jantel’s got a great feel for the game. She can score inside and out, and I like how she’s steadily improved. Last year was a break out year for her, and she’s maintained that. She’s our anchor. She’s had a really good year. We’re challenging her to keep getting better, and she’s receptive to it.”
Off the court, Lavender is loved by her teammates for her warmth and genuine character. Ogwumike, who is famously close to her younger sister, Connecticut Sun forward Chiney, said Lavender has become like a sister to her in the four years they’ve played together.
“That’s my dog. She’s my homie, my partner in crime,” Ogwumike said of Lavender. “She’s almost filled a void since I haven’t been able to play with Chiney. We’ve developed a special relationship over the years.”
Lavender may also fill a void for the Western Conference All-Star team, as she has for the Sparks this season, in tomorrow’s All-Star game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The game tips at 12:30 p.m. Pacific/3:30 p.m. Eastern on ABC.