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Heart (and soul) of Los Angeles Sparks’ defense — Alana Beard

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As the Sparks officially begin their title defense today, they will rely on Alana Beard to set the tone for them on the defensive side of the ball.

WNBA: Minnesota Lynx at Los Angeles Sparks Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles, CA — Anyone who has watched the Los Angeles Sparks play knows that much of their offensive game plan goes through Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker. That’s what happens when you have two former league MVPs in your starting lineup.

But, if you’ve watched enough games, you know that on the opposite end of the court, L.A. has a tone setter as well-- guard Alana Beard.

As the Sparks get ready to defend their 2016 WNBA Title today, fans should be on the lookout for all the ways that Beard quite literally disrupts entire teams on the defensive side of the ball.

This year, there has been more than a rumbling of talk that Beard should win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, but for her teammates, coaches, and anyone who has followed her game long enough, her prowess on defense is not news.

“I think people are just now realizing how scary good she is,” Parker said. “It’s not necessarily all the things that show up in the stats sheet that makes you a good defender. It’s all those intangible things that Alana does naturally.”

For Beard, defense is something she has prided herself on for most of playing career, even before that career began professionally. Under her high school coach, Steve McDowell, Beard said she learned what it meant to respect the game, and that defense was a huge part of that.

“Being intuned and engaged with what you’re doing on the court is respecting the game in my opinion, and I’ll never take it for granted, ever,” Beard said.

“I respect the game so much, and I respect my teammates, and I understand that they work just as hard as me. So, if I’m not doing my job, I’m taking away from them. So, it’s a matter of respect and not taking anything for granted.”

While Parker said that her Sparks teammates sometimes tease Beard because of her intense attention to detail, she also said that it’s part of what makes her so good at what she does.

“It’s not just pure athleticism, it’s guarding things certain ways, and knowing angles, and not taking shortcuts in what she does,” Parker said. “She has a schedule, she has things she does on a daily basis that she sticks to and that’s something that I respect about her.”

While Beard fell in love with defense in high school and strived to be the best defender she could be, she landed in the hands of another defensive-minded coach at Duke University, Gail Goestenkors.

By the time she entered her first season in the WNBA in 2004, defense was a well-established part of her reputation. Following an absence from the league in the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to ankle issues, Beard landed with the Los Angeles Sparks. Three years later, she was playing for another defensive-minded coach when Brian Agler accepted the Sparks head coach position in 2015.

“We just clicked, we understand each other” Beard said of Agler.

Alana Beard, Brian Agler, Los Angeles Sparks David Sherman/Getty

Beard has clearly honed her one-on-one defense over the years to a point where her instincts can take over for her on the court. And while she thrives in those one-on-one situations, Agler said what makes Beard such an effective defender is her ability to disrupt opposing teams when she is off the ball.

“She can go and randomly get in passing lanes, she can recognize plays and get involved and blow plays up,” Agler said. “She has a good knack and timing to double team really good players. To me, she is just a really versatile type of defender.”

Along with top-notch fundamentals, Beard’s mentality and tenaciousness also ultimately fuels her teammates as they work together to execute L.A.’s defensive schemes.

“It’s a blessing to have her on our team,” Ogwumike said. “It’s something that you really can’t teach, but it’s contagious. She is the core, the essence of our defensive structure and our defensive character.

“She can stop anybody, honestly. I’m not even sure if that’s my opinion. I think it’s a fact. I really, truly believe that she can stop anybody.”

This mindset is arguably what makes the Sparks so dangerous as a defensive team. As L.A. runs things through Beard, her teammates understand and appreciate her effort, so much so that it raises their individual levels of play on that end of the floor.

But on top of her contagious effort, L.A. also has a defensive system that Agler designed to fall back upon. Given that they are in the middle of the WNBA Playoffs and trying to win another championship, it’s obviously impossible to provide specifics. For Beard though, that system ends up creating a perfect storm.

“It’s exactly a system,” Beard said. “You know what you’re doing game in and game out, and that makes it easy, because he’s probably one of the most consistent coaches I’ve ever played for.”

“For every situation, we have a philosophy, and we have something that we do,” Parker said. “There’s nothing that’s left up in the air how we’re covering certain things.”

Within that system, however, Agler is content to let Beard use her instincts. The lethal combination of instincts with a tenet for nearly every imaginable scenario is ultimately what allows Beard to be so successful.

As a result, the Sparks have really come to rely on Beard to set the tone for them.

Alana Beard, Los Angeles Sparks Juan Ocampo/Getty

“It’s easy to depend on her, and you take a lot of the things that she does for granted,” Ogwumike said. “And we really try our best not to do that, we value her very much.”

While her teammates value Beard’s constant effort, it has hardly given Beard an inflated sense of self. While she understands her individual role and the fact that she needs to perform that role to the best of her ability, she remains arguably one of the most team-oriented and humble players in the league.

“I can’t do what I’m capable of doing without the help of a Candace, a Nneka, a Jantel [Lavender], Odyssey [Sims], Chelsea [Gray],” Beard said. “If my teammates aren’t there covering and doing their part, I can’t do my part. So, that’s why I question like Defensive Player of the Year, you know? Because, a defender can’t be the best defender without their teammates, and that’s going to always be my opinion.”

Regardless of Beard’s opinions on the award or her modesty, those around her argue that there is no one else who affects games the way that Beard does. For that reason, they say, she should be the front-runner.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around somebody that has the kind of focus she has towards the defensive end,” Agler said.

Much like Agler, Beard’s teammates say that she is one-of-a-kind, especially considering the fact that she is a guard. The last time a guard won Defensive Player of the Year award was when Sheryl Swoopes nabbed it in 2003.

“What argument wouldn’t you make, what would be your point to not give it to her?,” Parker said. “She disrupts entire teams from the defensive end as a guard, and that’s unheard of.”

“I’m proud of her. I think a lot of people had written her off after her injury. And I’m glad she landed here, and I think that we don’t undervalue her. We know how truly special and integral she is to our team, and our core and our success.”

WNBA: Minnesota Lynx at Los Angeles Sparks Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m not even really sure if there’s anyone that can compare to what she’s done,” Ogwumike said, echoing Parker’s sentiments. “She came to LA with the intention of leaving her mark. I think that she’s doing it beautifully, and that’s just not something you can get from every player.”

And even though she remains unassuming, it is clear how much Beard values these opinions, considering they are coming from the people who matter the most to her.

“They see the work that goes into it day in and day out,” Beard said. “They know how much I pride myself on the defensive side of the ball.”

Beard may consider herself a role player, but her team will no doubt rely on her defensive spark as they look to defend their title.