Parker a safe bet for the No. 1 overall pick

TAMPA, Fla. -- Now back at the Final Four, Candace Parker is reminded of what she is passing up the chance to do for one more year at Tennessee. That said, she's ready to move on. And in the WNBA draft, she's expected to be the No. 1 pick Wednesday.

"Expected" doesn't quite seem like a strong enough word. Although when he spoke by phone recently about the draft, Los Angeles coach Michael Cooper did not refer to the Sparks' No. 1 pick as if the decision already had been made lock, stock and barrel. He said Parker was, "One of a good number of players that we are considering. With Lisa Leslie retiring sometime in the future, we're going to need a center. And there are two pretty good ones out there in Candace and Sylvia Fowles. We're going to take the best player who's going to fit our needs for the future."

Maybe that's just a coach's natural tendency to be secretive. Fowles is a tremendous player, no doubt. But Parker's expanded skill set makes her virtually impossible to pass up. Cooper also said he expects this to be a deep draft with several players taken who will make an impact this season.

"In this draft, I think teams will get three good players," he said. "Your No. 1 and 2 players are going to make your team, and your No. 3 player is going to create some problems for you in terms of cutting down your roster. This draft has a lot of the future of the WNBA in it. They're going to be the torch-bearers of where this league goes in the next 10 years."

Cooper has Leslie back this season after her maternity leave of a year ago, and the two of them have the goal of Leslie getting another MVP award in 2008. The thought of having both Leslie and Parker on the same team is tantalizing if you're a Sparks fan … or a USA Basketball fan in regard to the Beijing Olympics.

It's not just Parker's skills and size that make her a can't-miss pro player. Her basketball IQ, her competitiveness, toughness and work ethic are also top-notch. And if those things seem like cliché qualities, they really aren't.

Just as is the case with Leslie, Parker could get pretty far on sheer talent alone. But she couldn't be the best possible player without all those other things. In many ways, Leslie and Parker have a lot in common because they understand at their level, work is the difference in being very good and extremely good.

Parker said Monday that bypassing her final year of college eligibility wasn't an easy call for her. She has been in school four years, having injured her knee and redshirted what would have been her freshman season in 2004-05. She is on track to graduate this spring and is prepared for the next phase of her career.

"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life," Parker said of opting to not return to Tennessee next season. "In college, you're a kid. You have everything taken care of. You don't have to worry about paying your insurance or all that stuff. It's a huge jump to go from being a college kid to being a professional and out in the real world."

Parker will be one of several players who will start that transition on Wednesday, and Cooper said he has been looking forward to this group coming into the WNBA.

"I'm excited not just with us having the No. 1 pick," Cooper said. "I'm just excited because there are a lot of good players who are joining the league, and it makes your preparation for the draft a lot like the NBA. And I can say that, because I've been on both sides of the fence. We're having to do our homework. There are going to be some players who come in who don't have big names yet, but they can play at that level."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.