April 30, 2012 9:59:26 AM
A new April Sykes took the court Sunday primed to take the next step in her basketball career.
The former East Oktibbeha County High School All-American who went on to have a standout career with the Rutgers University women's basketball team worked in her first practice with her new team, the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.
Sykes said she lost 12 pounds after Rutgers ended its season last month in preparation for a chance to make a living playing professional basketball. She said she felt a lot quicker and that she could move a little bit better and go a little bit longer in the Sparks' first three-hour workout.
"It was exciting," Sykes said. "People have told me if you can go through a Rutgers practice you are prepared for anything in life. Playing at Rutgers helped me so much. I knew some of the drills and I wasn't afraid to mess up. As long as you go hard and don't worry about making mistakes, it is easy."
The Sparks selected Sykes, a 6-foot guard/forward, with the fourth pick of the third round (28th overall) in the league's draft April 16. The team also picked Khadijah Rushdan, Sykes' teammate at Rutgers, with the third pick in the second round (15th overall).
Sykes and Rushdan are two of six rookies in training camp for the Sparks. Their goal is to make the final cut when Ross and the Sparks pare their 17-player preseason squad for their regular-season opener May 18 against Seattle.
Sykes and her new teammates will have a week to impress the coaches before a preseason game against Pasadena College at 4 p.m. Saturday. The team will play two more preseason games before the roster cuts need to be made.
Sykes said a detailed workout regimen that featured speed and agility workouts, interval training, endurance work on stadium steps, weightlifting, and skill work on the court helped get her ready for basketball after college. She said she typically evaluates her conditioning after each season and wanted to lose some weight, so she opted for a diet filled with fruit and water. She said it was "pretty easy" to lose the weight, especially considering she has been drinking only water for the about a month.
Sykes may need every advantage she can muster to secure a spot with the Sparks. The team, which is led by former University of Tennessee All-American Candace Parker, has nine players on the roster listed as guards or forwards who are candidates to play a wing position.
Former University of Mississippi women's basketball coach Carol Ross, who is in her first season as head coach of the Sparks, said the team has six wings competing for four spots. Several of the guards listed on the roster likely will compete only for playing time at the point.
Sykes may have an edge in that she has known Ross for many years. Ross said she has followed Sykes' career ever since she was "a little kid." She feels Sykes already has the defensive acumen learned from longtime Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer that will help her take the next step to professional basketball.
"She is one of the most prolific scorers in high school girls basketball," Ross said. "We just wanted to have a chance to get her in camp and see what she can do and see if she has the skills and the will to play at this level."
Sykes averaged 29.8 points and 11.0 rebounds as a freshman and 32 points and 14 rebounds a game as a sophomore at East Oktibbeha County High. As a junior, she had five 40-plus point games and led EOCHS to the state title. She scored a career-high 51 points as a senior and went on to earn an array of awards and was named a 2008 McDonald's All-American. She also was one of 12 players selected to the Women's Basketball Coaches' Association (WBCA) All-America team, was named to the Parade Magazine All-America First Team (2008) and the USA Today All-USA Second Team, and was a three-time first-team All-State pick in the state of Mississippi. She was the 2008 Gatorade Mississippi Player of the Year.
Despite all of the accolades, Sykes took time to adjust at Rutgers. She averaged only 3.2 points and 2.1 rebounds as a freshman and admitted she needed to learn what it took to survive in Rutgers' system and against some of the nation's top players.
"I am still trying to get better with the mental part of my game," Sykes said in 2009. "I am getting better with it and the confidence part. I am coming into my own."
Sykes averaged 5.6 points and had eight double-figure scoring games as a sophomore. She broke out as a junior and averaged a team-leading 14.1 points per game, started 32 of 33 games, and earned a spot on the All-Big East Second Team. This past season, she again earned second-team all-league honors after averaging 12.9 points. She had a team-high 40 3-pointers.
For her career, Sykes played in 129 games (74 starts) and scored in double figures in 53. She became the 31st player to score 1,000 points, and is fourth in 3-pointers attempted (468), sixth in 3-pointers made (138), tied for eighth in games played (129), and 24th in points (1,162).
Sykes feels her ability to play facing and with her back to the basket will help her make the cut. She said she isn't going to think about what will she will do if she doesn't make the team. Her only focus is doing as many things as possible just a little better than everyone else to carve her niche.
Ross feels Sykes could be a good fit because like Stringer she wants the Sparks to play aggressive defense, to force turnovers, and to get out and run. She said all of the players who will compete for roster spots haven't arrived and will continue to trickle in from their teams in Europe. She said WNBA teams don't have practice squads, so players who don't make the league likely will have to find a place to play overseas if they want to keep their careers alive.
Sykes plans to keep that dream alive in the United States.
"As long as I come here and be April Sykes and be what I can be and do what I am good at I don't think I will have a problem making the roster," Sykes said. "I am always talking and I help a lot on defense. I am also rebounding and making shots and making my teammates better."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.