For Fever, Assists Will Be Key To Offensive Production

Lynetta Kizer, Shenise Johnson

INDIANAPOLIS – With the WNBA season at its one-third mark, Stephanie White took time after Monday’s practice to assess the Indiana Fever’s first-month results.

The No. 1 question for White, Indiana’s first-year head coach, through much of 2015 has centered on the Fever offense. Modifying it with a faster pace, adapting it to continue to contend and prosper in the WNBA, rated as a team priority.

She isn’t displeased.

“I think we’re better,” said White, whose Fever (5-6) have won two straight games and are currently tied for fifth with Atlanta in the Eastern Conference. “I certainly think we’re better than where we started. We have moments where it looks exceptional. And we have more moments where we seem to have a lot of work to do.”

Indiana is averaging 77.8 points per game, its best mark since the 2012 WNBA championship team averaged 78.3. The Fever are No. 1 in the league in 3-point shooting at 39 percent. Overall, their shooting is 42.2 percent.

White still wants to see her players have a better understanding of teammates’ moves within the new scheme. She said they need to continue work on the timing and angles of their passes.

The Fever’s assist-to-field goal ratio could use a boost, according to White, who would like to have 75 percent of all made field goals follow an assist. Indiana is at 53 percent (158 assists on 298 field goals) after 11 games.

“That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re sharing the basketball, when everybody’s getting involved,” White said.

The Fever will play the second game of a four-game homestand when Seattle (3-9) visits Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday afternoon. White would love to get another defensive performance from her team like the one produced last week against Washington in a 73-50 victory.

White and her coaching staff made defense a renewed point of emphasis over the past few weeks. The Fever, whose defensive average is currently at 79.7 points, seemingly had lost sight of what boosted them to a WNBA-record 10 consecutive playoff appearances coming into 2015.

Twice before dominating Washington last week, Indiana had allowed 95 or more points. Six times, the Fever had allowed 83 or more.

“But now it’s reminding them: Defense is the priority,” White said. “We want to play faster, we want to be better offensively, but it’s still secondary to our defense.”

One of the Fever’s most consistent positions this season has been center. Natalie Achonwa, who Monday was named the WNBA’s Rookie of the Month, has been outstanding with averages of 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. Lynetta Kizer, Achonwa’s backup, is averaging 8.5 points and 2.8 rebounds.

Combined, the two centers are shooting .509 from the field with total marks of 18.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

“What’s scary is that I think both of them are just scratching the surface,” White said. “I think both can be a more commanding presence for us on both ends of the floor. … I think they’re giving us exactly what we need at this point, but I certainly think there’s a lot of great potential out of both of them to continue to get better.”

Achonwa is scheduled to depart the Fever after two more games to join her Canadian national team for a few weeks. In some fortunate timing for the Fever, the knee injury of veteran post player Erlana Larkins is beginning to improve. Larkins played 8 ½ minutes and scored four points in the triumph over Washington.

“We need to make sure she’s in a position to take some of those minutes,” White said about Larkins’ move into the rotation. “We might have to get creative with our lineups, too, and go small and what not. But it certainly is a benefit for us to have Larkins back on the floor.”

Another veteran, Shavonte Zellous, has missed the last six games with a lower back injury. Her return remains game to game.

Zellous was the league’s Most Improved Player and made the All-Star team in 2013, when she averaged a career-high 14.7 points. White is eager to see her back on the court.

“Absolutely. Just having her presence on the floor is big for us,” White said. “She’s played in a lot of big moments, a lot of big games. She is poised and composed with the ball in her hands, and she makes things happen offensively and defensively. … It’ll be great when we get her back full-go.”

Veteran Tamika Catchings, named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week on Monday, is back from an early-season knee problem and going all out. In her last three games, the irrepressible Catchings, who will be 36 years old later this month, has hit 19-of-31 shots with 24 rebounds, nine assists and six steals.

But when White assesses Catchings’ play, the statistics are often secondary.

“I look at her energy level,” the coach said. “I look at how she’s involving her teammates and making them better. Is she making the extra pass? Are we getting things for her in the flow of the offense?

“(It’s) all of those things that help us evaluate her versus just her numbers. I try to get her to see it that way.”

As the Fever push forward with hopes of ascending in the Eastern Conference, a player to watch might be point guard Briann January. She is averaging 7.9 points per game, her lowest mark since 2010. Her assists are at 3.7 a game with 2.1 turnovers.

January’s defense remains strong because, as White said, it’s “in her nature to always set the tone and dictate defensively.” If January is able to break out again offensively – as she did in 2014 with a 10.3 scoring mark and a first-time appearance in the All-Star Game – the Indiana attack will have another component.

“Her commanding presence on the offensive end of the floor, to me, is an X-factor for us,” White said.