Success of the Fever Starting 5 Starts with Erica Wheeler
By Tyler Berry
Five games in, the Fever are still trying to find chemistry as a team. After the first three games, head coach Pokey Chatman made what most would deem an easy decision by adding rookie Kelsey Mitchell to the starting lineup and sending the struggling Jazmon Gwathmey to the bench.
With Gwathmey averaging less than three points per game and Mitchell averaging nearly 17 while also bringing a quicker tempo to the offense, the change wasn’t really a surprise. After two games with the Ohio State product in the starting five, Mitchell’s production hasn’t fallen off. In her first start against Washington, she finished with 25 and followed that performance with 18 points against Connecticut.
She’s cemented her place as a starter. However, her success – and the team’s better performances early in games -- still hasn’t resulted in a W. The problem certainly isn’t her scoring, nor is it veteran Candice Dupree, who’s found more success recently, as the team has gotten her off to quick starts offensively via pick-and-roll sets.
The current problem for the Fever starting unit is that it’s not seeing a lot of consistency from any of the other three starters. After Natalie Achonwa posted a 25-point, 12-rebound game at Washington – the best game of her young career – she has followed up with three games where she struggled immensely. Opponents have pressured her early and often, getting her into foul trouble and keeping her from finding a rhythm offensively. She has just four points on four shots in her last two games combined, including a 2-point night at home against the Mystics where she fouled out.
Guard Tiffany Mitchell has seen a bit more success with her offensive game, but it’s been either feast or famine in her five starts. Her scoring log is as follows: 11, 0, 14, 13 and 4, respectively. She’s important to Indiana’s offense, but the game doesn’t necessarily flow through her. She’s found her success as a spot-up shooter, thriving off kickouts from the primary ballhandlers.
Frankly, with Chatman feeling content playing Kelsey Mitchell off-ball during the early stages of the game, the Fever need point guard Erica Wheeler to have positive gains both from shooting and facilitating standpoints.
Wheeler is the team’s best passer and it’s not really that close. Her ability to make precision outlet passes in transition and find her teammates at the rim isn’t easy, despite the way she makes it look. Her passing and quick decision making help Indiana push the pace, something that Chatman has made clear she wants her squad to do.
Just as vital to her game is her passing in the half-court offense. When the Fever run the pick-and-roll with her and Dupree – something that’s been done with more regularity in the past two games – the success rate is high. Dupree is so good as the roll woman and can score at the rim or on short midrange pullups. All Wheeler has to do is feed her an accurate pass and it results in high-percentage opportunities.
With both those areas of her passing game working, you would like to see her assists more in the six or seven per game range, as opposed to her season average of right around four. We have already seen how capable of a feat this is in her 9-assist game against the Sun.
More consistent scoring production is key for Wheeler and the Fever as well. In the season opener, she posted 13 points on 6-for-13 shooting. If you can get that level of output from her every night, that starting five becomes extremely dangerous. She has proven that the ability is there, especially in some of her 2017 performances. Last season, she tied the Fever franchise record with seven 3-pointers in a single game against the Liberty.
When Wheeler can get to her spots and get good looks at the basket, opponents have to key in on her more, allowing for open teammates on the perimeter. She has the ability to get into the lane, forcing off-ball defenders to slide over to help, and that’s when she can kick out to either of the Mitchells or find Dupree in the midrange.
Her scoring, along with her accurate passing, gives the starting five the ability to break games wide open. If she brings both areas of her game consistently, Indiana will start winning.