Why Sparks guard Alana Beard should win WNBA defensive player of the year

Even after so many years of playing and so much mileage on her legs, Sparks guard Alana Beard won't compromise. She is committed to all the things necessary to being a great defender: getting into the right stance, always being aware of spacing, never letting the player she's guarding feel like there's much room to breathe, keeping in verbal contact with her teammates.

That's the work on the court. There's also studying video to be sure that she knows everything her opponents can do, which is how she makes such good decisions when guarding people. And she has stayed in excellent shape so that even at age 35, she remains a defensive stopper.

So if you're making a list of the best defenders who've ever played in the WNBA, Beard willbe on it.

Admittedly a biased source, Sparks coach Brian Agler says, "We've got who I believe is the best defender in the league in Alana Beard; she sets the tone. She not only does her job [defending her player], but she helps us in a lot of ways off the ball."

Opposing coaches are quick to praise Beard, too, including Sandy Brondello, whose Mercury will face Los Angeles on Thursday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET). Cheryl Reeve, whose Lynx visit L.A. on Sunday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) says of Beard, "I've been around players like that, and I have some on my team. It's right here (points to heart). Hers is up there with some of the best I've been around."

Both Brondello and Reeve have high regard, of course, for their own defensive stalwarts: Phoenix's Brittney Griner and Minnesota's Sylvia Fowles. Both are centers who've previously been the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year. Fowles has won the honor three times, including last season, and Griner twice.

But Beard has not won the award. In fact, no true guard has received it since Miami's Debbie Black in 2001.

Houston's Sheryl Swoopes, a 6-foot guard/forward, won the honor three times (2000, '02, '03). New York guard Teresa Weatherspoon won it the first two years of the WNBA (1997, '98). But the rest of the time, the top defender has been awarded to a forward or a center. Indiana forward Tamika Catchings won it five times, most recently in 2012.

With Fowles being the front-runner for MVP, she might pick up her fourth defensive award as well this season. It's a valid choice; she's the centerpiece of the team with the top defensive rating (96.1) and best record (23-6) in the league. But you could say the same about Beard as a perimeter player for the 22-8 Sparks, who are second in defensive rating (99.4).

Admittedly, it's usually easier to evaluate post defense, both analytically and visually. And the post-player domination of the defensive award isn't limited to the WNBA. The NBA first gave out the honor in the 1982-83 season. As was the case with the WNBA, it went to a guard, Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief, the first two years.

But the only other non-posts to win it since are San Antonio guard Alvin Robertson ('86), Los Angeles guard/forward (and current Atlanta Dream coach) Michael Cooper ('87), Chicago guard Michael Jordan ('88) and Seattle guard Gary Payton ('96).

Beard has never had a cool nickname like Payton's "The Glove," but she's very difficult to face.

"She's somebody who likes to slow down offensive players so they can't get their wheels rolling," Minnesota's Maya Moore said. "It's really smart. She's able to use her physicality. As an offensive player, I try to use that against her and try to get fouls on her. As a competitor, it makes you rise to the occasion. It's a challenge."

Beard leads the WNBA in steals per game (2.1, with 63 in 30 games) and has 645 in her WNBA career, putting her fourth in league history behind Catchings (1,074), Ticha Penicheiro (764) and Swoopes (657). (Beard also has 41 steals in 28 playoff games.)

But Beard says that the biggest indicator of how well she's doing her defensive job is how often she helps force opponents to take shots they don't want to take.

"You play the percentages. You know who you're guarding," Beard said. "I know how I'm closing out against each player, which way I'm forcing them to go, the type of shots they want, how they'll put the shot up.

"It's those details that helped win us a championship last year. It wasn't just me, it was the whole team."

That's what you would expect from an Agler-coached team. But both he and Beard's teammates would say she's not just the spark plug of their defense, but more like its engine.

Even in today's metrics-driven sports world, it can be challenging to find a perfect analytic measuring an individual defender's total effectiveness. And there are some analytics that are more readily available and accessible in the NBA than the WNBA, including real plus-minus.

But while he definitely does not dismiss analytics, Agler still thinks Beard's value is hard to convey in any particular statistic. He depends on Beard to cover her assignments but also cause disruptions that can help everyone else -- and to be a top-notch communicator.

"It's evolved over the years; becoming a vet you have more experience and knowledge and just know better how to talk to people," Beard said. "Communication at this level is key. Getting on one of my teammates because of a defensive assignment they missed ... I can do that, but it's about how I deliver the message."

Her teammates have always listened to her because they see she gets the job done. Part of that is her versatility and physicality. At 5-foot-11, with strength, flexibility, wingspan, foot speed and great lateral movement, Beard is well-suited to be able to guard almost anybody. She can even effectively help defend centers, picking them up on switches and at least challenging them.

Beard's defensive mindset goes all the way back to her days at Southwood High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her coach there, Steve McDowell, modeled many of his defensive concepts off college programs like Louisiana Tech and Tennessee. He said Beard was that rare high school star who valued her defense just as much as her scoring.

"It's a part of the game that I really love to teach, and Alana took right to it,"McDowell, who won four state championships with Beard on his team, said. "She could do some things that a lot of kids just couldn't do it. But much of your success at defense is that you've got to work at it, no matter how athletic you are. And Alana always had the motivation to do the work."

That carried through in her success playing for Gail Goestenkors at Duke, who says Beard is the best defender she coached.

"Most players are either good on-ball defenders or good on help-side," Goestenkors said. "She does both exceptionally well. She's got extra-long wingspan, which make her a nightmare on the ball and makes it difficult for other teams to get their offense started."

Beard continued her defensive prowess as a pro, and she credits advice given to her by older players. One she specifically mentions is Crystal Robinson, who spent seven seasons in New York but finished her career in Washington when Beard was still a young pro in 2006 and '07.

And even the severe ankle issues that forced Beard to miss the 2010 and '11 WNBA seasons did not keep her from coming all the way back to being a premiere defender.

"I've never coached her; I've always gone against her," Reeve said. "[But] it's what you see. She went through that stretch of her career with injuries. The kind of will that you have to have, the persistence, and a passion for what you're doing to come back ... I would say it's unmatched."

And whether Beard ever wins a defensive player of the year award, she is proud that defense is so much a part of her reputation.

"All the coaches I've had along that journey have only sharpened my skills and provided me with more knowledge," she said, adding that Agler is a perfect-fit coach for her in the WNBA. "There was a time I always wanted the steal and the big play. Then I realized the big play is usually when you make a player take a tough shot. And if they make the shot, you have to live with that."

Then Beard chuckled and said, "But I'm always going to be unhappy that someone scored on me."
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