It was a reunion of sorts at Los Angeles Sparks practice Tuesday, and it certainly wasn't lost on the team.
Sparks forward and former University of Tennessee star Candace Parker practiced fully for the first time since her maternity leave but said she would have a better idea about how she is adjusting after contact drills Wednesday.
"I think that it's going at the right speed," said Parker, who delivered her first child May 13, a daughter named Lailaa. Last season's WNBA most valuable player and rookie of the year expects to return to the court within five weeks.
Meanwhile, Sparks center Lisa Leslie returned to practice for the first time since missing the last three games because of a right knee sprain she had June 19 against the Phoenix Mercury. She said she was cleared to shoot but is still abstaining from running drills.
"I'm doing so much better and I'm feeling good," said Leslie, who hopes to practice fully by the end of the week.
Their gradual comeback coincides with the Sparks' winning two of their last three games, including an 82-55 victory over the league's top team, the Seattle Storm (6-3). During Leslie's absence, the Sparks had at least three players score in double digits.
Neither Parker nor Leslie plan to play in the Sparks next game on July 5 at home against the Phoenix Mercury, but Coach Michael Cooper was looking ahead.
"It's nice to see what the team could possibly look like in the future," Cooper said. "Everybody was kind of glad because they can see our team forming and we're playing extremely good basketball right now."
The Sparks, however, are winless on the road and their 3-5 record puts them in fifth place in the Western Conference, 2 1/2 games behind the Storm for the top spot in the standings. It's a position the Sparks expected to be in.
But Parker has not let what has transpired on the court change her recovery plans.
"I'm always going to push the limit and get out as fast as I can whether we're undefeated or we're losing," she said. "I set this as a goal to be back in practice and I'm excited about that."
Last Tuesday, Parker shot jumpers for a total of about 30 minutes, and had predicted she soon would return to practice. Cooper says Parker's conditioning will determine how quickly he phases her into the rotation, which he expects will involve four- or five-minute bursts before eventually playing 30 to 35 minutes a game.
As for Leslie, the three-time MVP indicated that the bruise on her right knee has kept her from bending the whole way but added, "I'm recovering a lot faster than what our doctors thought."
She said she took 200 jump shots Tuesday, and has ridden a bike for 15 minutes a day at 75 percent resistance. She's not sure whether she'll travel on the Sparks next road trip to New York (July 9) and Washington (July 11). The team had expected for her to be gone at least through July 11.
Amid the uncertainty, Cooper found one consistent quality that he says has made the process easier.
"Both of them are such competitors and they play the game at a high level," he said. "They push themselves even when the coach doesn't push them."