Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Big 5 Rookie of the Year. 2018 second team All-Ivy. Eight-time Ivy League Rookie of the Week. Two-time Ivy League Player of the Week.
Most players would be thankful to accomplish in a career what sophomore center Eleah Parker did in just her freshman season. Still, for Penn women’s basketball to succeed, she’ll need to get even better.
Parker was one of the best players in the league as a freshman. Last year, she took the Ivy League by storm, averaging 11.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game. She put up these numbers despite sharing a front court with one of the greatest players in Penn basketball history, 2018 graduate Michelle Nwokedi.
Now, Nwokedi is gone, along with Anna Ross, the all-time program leader in assists, Lauren Whitlatch, the team's best three-point shooter, and Beth Brzozowski, one of the teams top reserves. This offseason, the Quakers got a whole lot younger and less experienced, and that will put a burden on some players who will be asked to step up earlier than usual.
“[Parker’s] leadership has been great, has really grown [in the] six months since the season ended last year to now,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “There’s steps to being a good leader, and I think she’s taking them, I don’t think she’s quite where she wants to be or where we want her to be but maybe a month from now, two months from now we’ll see even a bigger step.”
On the court, Parker has already shown that she can be a great player, but now she’ll be required to do even more. While sharing the post with Nwokedi meant fewer chances to increase both players’ stats, it also took some of the pressure off. Now, the Penn offense — and opposing defenses — will target Parker even more heavily than they used to.
On top of this, teams have seen what Parker can do — opposing Ivy coaches were able to scout her twice in the regular season last year, and may be better equipped to try and stop her. For Eleah, though, this is more of a blessing than a curse.
“[Being the target of opposing defenses] will be a challenge, I feel like a lot of teams will scout me,” Parker said. “I’m gonna draw a lot of the attention, but I think that it'll open up the floor for my teammates. If [the other team is] all gathered around me, paying attention to me, somebody else is open for a shot, so I feel like within our team it'll benefit us.”
Leadership on the court is obviously critical; there’s no question that the ability of Nwokedi and Ross to run the offense, produce baskets, and anchor the team’s defense was a major part of their success the past four years. However, losing so many seniors also means that someone will need to fill the off-court leadership void left by the graduation of all four of the team’s captains.
The new 2018-19 team will have to make due without that leadership. With such a young team and so few upperclassmen, Parker will be asked to step up in this role as well, although it’s one she doesn’t have much experience in.
“She gained so much last year, she played with a really experienced group of players, so she was able to sit behind them and watch and learn from afar as she played,” McLaughlin said. “She’s someone that we’re always going to be talking about — you’re here today to talk about her — so she’s got to embrace that, and she’s going to be required to always do more.”
In her first year at Penn, Parker wasn’t exactly known for seeking out the spotlight. Her off-court demeanor doesn’t mirror her powerful, commanding play on the court. When talking to reporters, she’s always quick to defer to her teammates and de-emphasize her own impact. For someone who values being a team player, there might be some challenges in becoming more of a leader.
On the other hand, that’s just part of who Eleah Parker is; her humility and ability to defer praise and accept criticism is what has made her such a great player. Being able to quickly learn from mistakes and support every member of the team might just make her a great leader, too.
“From being a freshman to being a sophomore, I’m still learning things and growing, but I do have that experience from last year,” Parker said. “I always know it’s not just me, I know it takes a village. I have my teammates and my coaches always supporting me, guiding me, teaching me when I make mistakes, and encouraging me so I always know it’s not me. Everything I have I’ve been given, so I’m extremely blessed and nothing’s gonna change between last year and this year; I’m the same person, I’m gonna keep the same values and always be humble.”
In order to continue their dominant play from the past several years, the Quakers will need to answer a lot of questions stemming from the changing composition of the team. Whether their humble, superstar sophomore center can improve even more than she already has should be at the top of the list.
For more about the upcoming season, check out the project page for the 2018-2019 Penn basketball preview.