Women's Watch: Lavender ready for a new beginning as Chicago Sky season opens

Moving halfway across the country from Los Angeles to Chicago, WNBA veteran Jantel Lavender is now closer to home than she has been in eight years.

The Cleveland native is also hoping she is closer to being herself again.

"I just want to get back to being Jantel," said Lavender, a 6-foot-4 center who became one of the best players in Big Ten history during her four-year career at Ohio State (2007-2011).

She was acquired on Monday by the Chicago Sky in a trade with the Los Angeles Sparks, the team she has played for during her entire eight-year WNBA career, for a future draft pick.

"Chicago is really close to home, a 45-minute flight, a five-hour drive," Lavender said with a big smile. "My family can come to all the games. I'm super excited about that."

Lavender is also super excited about getting back to that player she was at Ohio State, a focal point, a first option. A superstar. She scored nearly 3,000 points for the Buckeyes and was a four-time Big Ten player of the year, the first female player from the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12, ACC, SEC or Pac-10 to win four conference player of the year awards.

That's the kind of player Lavender knows she can still be, the kind of player she wants to be.

The 30-year-old isn't trying to step on any toes in Chicago. She's not coming in with any demands.

But she is certain that she can offer more, more to the Sky, which opens the 2019 season tonight in Minneapolis against the Minnesota Lynx, than she was ever able to give to the Sparks.

Lavender had the fortune, and at the same time, the great challenge, of playing alongside two players in Los Angeles who will go down as two of the best bigs in WNBA history: former Naperville Central great Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike.

For most of her career with the Sparks, Lavender was the backup to Parker and Ogwumike. And she flourished. In 2016, she averaged nearly 10 points per game and was named the league's Sixth Woman of the Year as Los Angeles won the WNBA championship.

"I was playing second fiddle to Candace and Nneka, who are amazing players, and I was OK with that role for a long time. I was happy with it," Lavender said. "I was always there, I was always consistent, I was always reliable.

"But getting older, I feel like it's kind of time for me to see what else is out there. I want to do something different. I don't want to end my career and say, 'Well, what if I would have done this, or what if I would have gone there.' I'm ready for something new, just to get the opportunity to fill another role, because I know what I can bring to a team."

There is already evidence that Lavender can be a go-to player for a WNBA team. In 2015 when Parker was sitting out the first half of the season to rest, Lavender stepped into a starting role for the Sparks and put up big numbers.

She wound up starting all 34 games that season and averaged a career-high 14.5 points per game along with 8.3 rebounds per game. She was also voted a WNBA all-star for the first time in her career.

"I want to be (a focal point). I want to help this team," Lavender said. "This is a new beginning for me and I'm excited."

Lavender is also excited about the vibe around her new team. She says it's quite a contrast from the Sparks, an older, more veteran team.

"It's an amazing vibe here. The team is young, these players have a lot of energy," Lavender said of her new teammates in Chicago. "My team in L.A., we had married couples, people had kids. It was a different feel here immediately.

"I walked in here, and the music is blasting. I'm usually the one who brings the music. I even had my boom box with me and I was like, 'Oh, we don't need my boom box here.' It's my kind of feel. I like it a lot. It's fun. I can't wait to see how these girls are on the court. I can't wait to be a leader and to be able to help them in whatever way I can."

Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) tries to push the ball through the defense of Los Angeles Sparks center Jantel Lavender (42) in the first half of Game 1 in the WNBA basketball finals game, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Minneapolis. Associated Press
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