— Mother’s motivation driving Wheeler through unexpected life in WNBA.
The name is fitting. One of the quickest young guards in the league accelerates and drives like she has a set of wheels. And after a few round-a-bouts, she’s just starting to pick up speed.
Second-year point guard Erica Wheeler is averaging 10.3 points per game in the early stages of the season for the Indiana Fever. Her journey to Indianapolis is anything but conventional, and it’s been in the works for awhile now.
“I spend a considerable amount of time watching players overseas in the offseason,” said Indiana Fever President and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf. “She was a guard I had my eye on since the beginning of last year. I was looking for a point guard that could really break down defenders and get to the rim, and give us speed, quickness and depth.”
Krauskopf may have had an eye on Wheeler, but no one did a few years ago.
Wheeler was raised in the Liberty City area of Miami. She dabbled in other sports before finding a love for basketball. In high school, Wheeler appeared in three-straight state championship games, and won two. She was a McDonald’s All-American and the leading scorer in Florida as the college offer letters started pouring in.
“Colleges started to come visit me and contact me,” Wheeler said. “Vivian (Stringer) was a Hall of Fame coach at Rutgers. She came and talked about the education. Everyone else was coming to talk about just basketball. My mom didn’t care about that.”
A pair of Wheeler’s former AAU teammates–Chelsey Lee and April Sykes–were Rutgers players as well. Done deal.
After three seasons with Scarlet Knights, Wheeler had packaged three-quarters of a solid collegiate career. Then came the hard part.
Wheeler’s mother, Melissa Cooper, lost her battle with cancer at the end of Wheeler’s junior year in 2012.
“Me and my mom were really best friends,” Wheeler said. “She was just that person I could talk to about anything.”
Wheeler struggled that summer and contemplated not returning for her senior season. That changed when a random friendship with Chicago Bulls’ forward Carlos Boozer brought added inspiration. Boozer and Wheeler shared the same trainer in Miami–Devel King–and their friendship began when Boozer helped Wheeler and her sisters afford their mother’s funeral.
Wheeler returned to Rutgers for her senior year and earned Honorable Mention All-Big East Honors after joining the 1,000-point club.
“Vivian (Stringer) was a mother to all of us and she was there every step of the way,” Wheeler said. “I remember my senior year, just walking off the floor because it was too much sometimes. And she understood. My players and coaches, they were all there for me.”
That year, Wheeler got multiple tattoos in her mother’s memory. A picture of her mother covers her right shoulder with the words “My Motivation.” Wheeler had a challenging few years ahead, and she would need those reminders.
Wheeler wasn’t selected in the WNBA Draft in 2013. She wasn’t given a tryout for any team. She wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Her only basketball opportunity came with a club called Ponce on the southern coast of Puerto Rico where she played for $200 a week. She dropped 32 points in her first game. Then, she took Ponce from back-to-back losing seasons to a Puerto Rican title.
Next stop: Turkey.
A shorter stay, Wheeler tallied multiple 40-point games in the second-tier Turkish league. Eventually, Wheeler headed to Brazil, a better opportunity, and another title run in 2015.
After torching defenses and collecting hardware at nearly every stop, it was Wheeler’s agent, Fabio Jardine, who finally convinced the Atlanta Dream that Wheeler was the real deal. Many were already eyeing the young speedster; Krauskopf included.
After two years on an international tour, Wheeler was signed by Atlanta on May 25, 2015.
“Wow. It was just a dream come true,” Wheeler said. “I didn’t think about the WNBA. I didn’t think I’d get there. The moment I got into training camp it was like, ‘there’s no way you’re going to take this from me.’”
After 17 games with Atlanta, Wheeler averaged 4.5 points and 1.5 assists per game in a little over 10 minutes per contest. She was cut and picked up by New York, where she eventually faced Indiana in the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals in 2015. Then she was cut again and returned to Brazil before being signed by Indiana on Feb. 26 of this year.
Wheeler has jumped right in and brought all sorts of fun, attitude and spark for the Fever. The responsibility of handling the point should weigh heavy on a young guard, but she jokes, laughs and gives off a vibe like she’s on vacation. Always upbeat. Always having fun, and it’s contagious.
“She’s been so great,” Fever head coach Stephanie White said. “She’s fun. She’s a hard worker. She’s a great teammate and she’s really the perfect fit for our franchise because of her commitment to the defensive end, her toughness and her energy. That’s exactly what we want; hungry players who want to be better for each other.”
Wheeler’s ability to step up in the absence of Briann January has played a crucial role in the Fever success to start the 2016 campaign. She had 13 points in the Fever’s opening game against Dallas, and followed with a career-high 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting in a win over Phoenix. Though January may soon return to the Indiana lineup, Wheeler expects to continue thriving in her new home.
Between two high school state titles, one in Puerto Rico and another in Brazil, Wheeler has proven herself as a winning point guard with four championships. She would love nothing more than to finally land one with Indiana in the WNBA.