Pokey Chatman begins her first season as head coach of the Indiana Fever, and the Fever begin their first season without Tamika Catchings on the playing floor since 2001 – but the cupboard is far from bare for Chatman as she hopes to guide the Fever into their 13th consecutive playoff bid.
An All-Star trio of Candice Dupree, Briann January and Marissa Coleman help shape an Indiana roster that begins the season ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press preseason power poll. Eight core players return from a 2016 playoff club, leading the Fever into their 18th season with road games at Seattle and Phoenix. It is the first time the Fever have ever opened a season on the West Coast.
Particularly pleased to begin her ninth WNBA season out west is point guard Briann January. The native of Spokane, Wash., considers both stops “home” during a WNBA journey that began in the Northwest and blossomed in the Southwest, during a four-year stay at Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. January, in fact, will begin a new career, next fall, as assistant coach at ASU.
Family and friends will see January begin her new season, as part of a pro career which has never failed to reach the postseason. What fans of the Storm and Mercury will see is one of the league’s most respected and revered performers, as revealed in this week’s Annual WNBA GM Survey — a survey of predictions and opinions expressed by WNBA general managers.
January appears among five players and Chatman, herself, among the league’s best of the best, according to GMs. She was chosen the WNBA’s best on-ball defender, and its second-best perimeter defender. She was ranked No. 2 among the league’s best passers and was cited for her all-around toughness. A five-time member of the WNBA All-Defense Team, she was identified as an early candidate as defensive player of the year.
Chatman, who coached the past six years in Chicago and led the Sky to the Finals in 2014, was noted as one of the WNBA’s best motivators. As GM and coach of the Sky, she formed a young roster that became a playoff regular with the help of talented superstar Elena Delle Donne.
Delle Donne, though, like Chatman, is no longer in Chicago. Her departure to Washington was voted by GMs regarded as the league’s most impactful offseason transaction, just ahead of Indiana’s acquisition of Dupree.
Dupree begins her 12th WNBA season ranked 11th among the WNBA’s all-time rebounders and 15th among its top career scorers. She is an efficient power forward who blends scoring and rebounding, and will go a long way toward helping Indiana succeed in Catchings’ absence. Dupree is herself a five-time All-Star and should project a productive and calming influence among Indiana’s newer, younger stars like Tiffany Mitchell and rookie Erica McCall.
Mitchell, who set Indiana rookie records last season while averaging 8.6 points per game, was selected by GMs among a handful of candidates poised for a breakout season in 2017. Mitchell was undaunted during her rookie campaign, scoring in double-figures in her first eight games last season — the longest streak to begin a career in Indiana history. Later, she deposited 42 consecutive free throws to set another franchise mark. She made eight starts while playing all 34 games, and could should emerge as one of the Fever’s top scorers in 2017.
The Fever’s rookie standout this year is McCall, who will play a backup role to Dupree at forward. She is a high-energy player who was one of the best thoroughbred athletes in last year’s draft, but slipped down the draft ladder as teams spent higher picks on specific needs in the post and perimeter. McCall was a double-double performer during Stanford’s NCAA Tournament rally to the Final Four. At No. 17 overall, Indiana believes it unearthed a gem. So do GMs, who selected McCall among first-year players who could emerge as a sleeper rookie.
How to end a story about top players? How about the constantly high-achieving, blue-collar rebounder who rarely receives accolades with the league’s elite? How about a player who GMs are united in calling one of the league’s most underrated players?
Erlana Larkins is just that player. An eighth-year pro, she set a franchise record with 9.2 rebounds per game in 2014, and her 7.4 caroms per game in 2016 was seventh in the WNBA. She has been a top ten rebounder while starting at least 30 games in three of the past four seasons, and her 55 percent career shooting clip is fifth in WNBA history. Unheralded? Underrated? Larkins and the Fever don’t care, so long as she’s healthy and the club wins games.
Sunday in Seattle, a new era begins.
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