- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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In four years at the University of Oklahoma, Courtney Paris became one of the most decorated college basketball players in history. She needed five years to become a productive professional player.
For the first time since being drafted No. 7 overall in 2009, Paris is a starter in the WNBA. The 6-foot-4 center has started all five games for Tulsa, averaging 9.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest.
"I think it's just time for me," Paris said.
Frankly, Liz Cambage's absence -- skipping the season with the Shock to prepare for the world championships with the Australian national team -- helped create this opportunity for Paris, but she is making the most of it.
"I love playing with the team. They play so hard," said Paris, whose Shock have lost four of their first five games by four points or less. "We are going to put it together."
Paris is coming off her best season overseas in Turkey, where she averaged 14.7 points and 12.1 rebounds a game for Mersin of the Turkish league. She said Turkish coach Ceyhun Yildizoglu pushed her to the point of "annoyance," but it made Paris a better player.
"It was a good season for me development-wise," she said. "I saw things I'd never seen on the floor, and I was more comfortable than I've ever been in my career. I feel like I know my strengths and weaknesses now."
For such a long time, Paris was all strength. The first four-time Associated Press All-American in college basketball history, she was the country's most dominant post player during her four years at Oklahoma, arguably her era's Brittney Griner. She led Oklahoma to the Final Four in her final season in 2009 and became the first college basketball player, man or woman, to score 2,500 points and pull down 2,000 rebounds in her career. Paris holds the NCAA record for consecutive double-doubles at 112 games.
She played her first WNBA season in Sacramento before the franchise folded, seeing limited minutes on a veteran team, and then struggled to find a place in the league that most everybody on the outside assumed would come easily to such a decorated college star. Instead, Paris found herself on the league's periphery rather than its marquee.
"It was a steep curve for her," said Bryan Gardere, Paris' high school coach and close friend.
Paris' WNBA career has had many stops and starts. She spent the 2010 preseason in Chicago but was waived before the games tipped and spent the year out of the league. After the Sparks waived her after their 2011 training camp, Paris played 28 games for Atlanta that season as a role player before being cut. She was then picked up by Tulsa in 2012 and has re-signed with the Shock each of the past two seasons. In 2013, Paris was cut when Cambage made a last-minute decision to report to Tulsa, but the team re-signed Paris when Cambage was injured. Paris' career averages in the WNBA are 3.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Shock coach Fred Williams was Atlanta's general manager when Paris was signed in 2011. The player he sees now is "rejuvenated."
"She's trimmed down, she's getting down the floor, and she's playing in a system that has lifted her game inside," Williams said. "She's a double-double-type player for us."
Gardere said Paris has always been coachable, a trait that's benefiting her now.
"She's a rebounder and a finisher; it's what she's always done best," Gardere said. "If you get the ball down low, she's going to score. But I think she's better now at both ends. She is still one of the most competitive people I know, and she's always willing to learn."
Williams said Paris' conditioning is the biggest difference in her game.
"And her confidence," he added. "She has an eagerness and a determination to stay in this league, and I commend her for working hard and doing the right things. She didn't get a lot of minutes a lot of the time, and this is pretty much the first year she's gotten a lot of minutes."
Paris admitted she fought for several years to translate the things she did in college to a faster-paced, more physical WNBA game. She was pulled away from the basket, forced to defend more in a wider lane, and struggled with it.
"All I was focused on was what I couldn't do," she said, "and over the years I've honed in on what I can do."
And she tuned out the outside voices that wondered what had become of one of the brightest college stars in the history of the game.
"I didn't listen to everybody's expectations," Paris said. "High or low, you have to be true to yourself. I never felt discouraged. This is my route."
She was one of the most dominant NCAA players of the past decade, but Courtney Paris struggled to find a spot in the WNBA. Five seasons after being drafted No. 7 overall, she's a regular starter for Tulsa.