Consistent Candice Dupree is a quiet star

Philip Hersh
Chicago Tribune

PHOENIX — Candice Dupree has felt unusually nervous throughout the playoffs. She can tell by the swarm of butterflies in her stomach and the frequent bathroom trips before each game.

And she expects those emotions to intensify Friday night, partly because the Garth Brooks tour that forced the Sky from Allstate Arena will put Dupree back on the UIC Pavilion court where she played for Chicago the first four years of her pro career.

"It's the big stage," she said. "You don't want to come out here and fail. You don't want to disappoint."

That she hasn't as her Phoenix team took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five WNBA Finals owes to her having an asset guaranteed to calm nerves, the asset that is the most striking characteristic of Dupree's play, the one several Mercury teammates described with various forms of the same word: consistent.

"If you look at her career stats, the consistency is unbelievable," said the Mercury's longtime star, Diana Taurasi.

Consistency doesn't always attract attention, even if it makes for a nicely alliterative sobriquet in this case: Consistent Candice. That is fine with the 6-foot-2 power forward, happy to be a star for basketball purists, especially coaches, who marvel at the quiet efficiency and court intelligence that allow her to be a force as a scorer, rebounder and defender.

"I can say things, and she can execute it exactly how I want," Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.

Dupree sets screens as if she had used trigonometry to calculate the precise angle that will allow her to pop off the pick and become wide open in a flash. She gets free at the spots where her chance to knock down a shot is greatest and concentrates in practice on shooting from those spots.

"She has mastered that like no one else in the league," Taurasi said.

She reads the game, teammate Shay Murphy said, with the court vision of a Tim Duncan.

"Except `Pre' is a better passer," Murphy said. "I'm amazed with how smart she is."

Dupree, 30, set a career high in assists this regular season. The rest of her numbers were numbingly repetitive, mimicking what she has done in nine WNBA seasons during which Dupree has started all 34 games five times and fewer than 31 only in 2012, when she missed 21 games with a knee injury.

"With all the superstars on that team, she is one of the most respected players," said Sky head coach Pokey Chatman, who coached Dupree two seasons in Russia

Dupree's career regular-season numbers: 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game with a 49.8 field goal percentage. Her 2014 season numbers: 14.5, 7.6, 53.3. Her career playoff numbers: 16.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 59.4 field-goal percentage (second highest in WNBA history.) Her 2014 playoff numbers: 15.3, 5.9, 65.8.

"I don't want to be that player who gets 20 points one game and four or five the next," she said. "I was always taught fundamental basketball – nothing flashy, be consistent, take shots I know I can make, get the job done."

Dupree, who played at mid-major Temple, was the Sky's first draft pick in their inaugural WNBA season, and she loved playing in Chicago until the losing got to her. In her rookie year, the Sky had losing streaks of 13, eight and seven games and what was then a WNBA single-season record 29 losses. When the team's record over her first four seasons was 47-89 and the future looked gloomy, she asked to be traded and wound up in Phoenix as part of a three-way deal before the 2010 season.

"I was ready to win a championship," she said.

That has yet to happen with the Mercury, a talent-laden team that won WNBA titles in 2007 and 2009 but had not returned to the finals before this season. But Phoenix is one win away after routing the Sky twice in Phoenix.

"It has taken longer than expected, but I wouldn't change the path I had to go through," she said.

The major change in Dupree has been in her demeanor. She is still a neatness freak – the product of parents who both served in the Air Force – with a self-described "OCD-ish" streak, who folds every piece of clothing in her home to look as if it just came from the store. But she finally has shaken her reserve to let both teammates and the world see a little of what she says, with a laugh, is a "great personality."

"Diana always called me a weirdo because I would never talk," Dupree said.

Coming to a team with established stars like Taurasi and Taylor, both of whom had played on the Mercury's league champions, Dupree was conscious of not stepping on anyone's toes. She came, did her job and left, her presence barely evident beyond the court, where a self-effacing style of play also made Dupree recede into the background.

With the addition of 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner to the Mercury last season, it would have been even easier for Dupree to stay in the shadows.

"To get to the next level, she had to open herself up," Taurasi said. "She has the talent to be great, but there is also the responsibility of making sure you give of yourself to the team. Last year, I began seeing that a lot more and this year, she is coming in and making sure people knows she is at the gym."

Consistently, of course.