Victoria Vivians knocked down a jumper to put the Indiana Fever up eight against the Los Angeles Sparks forcing a timeout. The Fever bench was filled with smiles, almost a sense of accomplishment, mid-way through the third quarter.
That was when Cappie Pondexter intervened. “She said ‘LA is about to kick it into another gear. Don’t get too happy right now,’ I’ll never forget that,” said Kelsey Mitchell. “That alone said a lot about who she is.”
It says a lot about who she is, but it also says a lot about why, on a rebuilding team filled with young players, Indiana Fever head coach and general manager signed Pondexter on June 30. Since joining the then 1-15 Fever, Pondexter has averaged 25.7 minutes per game, more than second overall pick Kelsey Mitchell during that span, more than anyone except Candice Dupree.
The resume is undeniable: the 13-year vet is a two-time WNBA champion, Olympic gold medalist and was named one of the top 15 WNBA players of all-time.
But at 35, she is also at the back end of her career, recently announcing that 2019 will be her last in the league.
So why take away valuable experience from the future of your organization? These questions only increased when Pondexter was inserted into the lineup instead of Mitchell. She has maintained the spot since.
“It was an easy decision for me,” Pokey Chatman told High Post Hoops. “I think it even helps Kelsey Mitchell out and she has responded well to it. Fans and family members and schoolmates may not understand that, but it’s important for her growth.”
Growth? What better way than to be thrown into the fire and be forced to figure it out? If anything, this is hindering her growth, right?
Chatman went on to explain. “What people don’t understand it that these players can have a confidence issue as well. It’s also different when the coach is talking it and the veteran is doing it and they’re seeing it. They don’t feel the pressure of the world to make everything happen.”
In Chatman’s opinion, there is value in learning by example—being able to see what it is you are being asked to do. There are 12 to 13 years between Pondexter and the rookies on the Fever team. That is a lot of basketball knowledge and experience to be had and shared.
This is the second rodeo for Chatman and Pondexter, who brought her to the Chicago Sky for similar reasons. But it goes far deeper than just being a high-level competitor and bringing experience, Chatman said.
“It’s the things you don’t even have to talk to her about. Taking care of her body, what she does on a day off, how she warms up,” said Chatman. “She teaches them how to go through drills, how to go game like. They see that and they want to emulate that because she’s one of the greatest to ever play.”
For Mitchell’s part, she seems to have bought into this process. “I’ve grown a lot. I think she’s helping us young ones out in regards to knowing how to win,” Mitchell told High Post Hoops. “I always felt like I had a mentality like that, but she’s been doing it 13 years running and continuing to do it at a high level, you can only respect her and hear her out for what she has to say.”
It certainly helps when you get a chance to learn from your favorite player of all time. And Mitchell’s? It is, in fact, Cappie Pondexter. “Oh yeah, she’s the GOAT,” Mitchell said laughing and looking around the room for Pondexter. And Pondexter notices that, too.
“I can see a huge amount of growth in a few of the players, especially Kelsey Mitchell,” Pondexter told High Post Hoops. “She understands. I see her watching me all the time. I’ve seen her grow since I’ve been here. She just soaks it in and I really admire that about her. And I think that she’s going to really be a solid pro.”
The Fever are 2-7 since Pondexter joined the team. In her first game in a Fever uniform, she played a key role in the win over the Minnesota Lynx, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes of play. In her nine games, she has averaged eleven points per game in just over 26 minutes per game.
At 3-23 and the Fever officially out of playoff contention, it’s a difficult pill for Cappie to swallow. When asked what the most challenging aspect has been since joining the team, she didn’t hesitate. “The record,” Pondexter told High Post Hoops. “For me, I’m still trying to adjust to it as well. I just try to lead by example more than anything. Being 3-23, everybody’s talking. So, now it’s just a matter of going by example and letting the work speak for itself on every possession.”
Though Mitchell’s numbers are down, both in totals and efficiency in July, Mitchell tied a season high in scoring with 26 points against a loss to the Seattle Storm. Chatman and Mitchell both believe she is progressing.
“She’s beginning to see the game and read it. It’s slowing down in her mind,” said Chatman.
Despite the record, Mitchell shows up every day eager to grow.
“When you haven’t had a lot of success in the win column, its difficult to keep people up. That’s a testament to her character in continuing to work,” Chatman said of Mitchell.
The circumstances are trying. With such a young group, all eyes on Chatman and Pondexter on how to respond. How to get the best out of a fragile situation.
At 35 and nearly every experience imaginable under her belt, Pondexter has been tested at the highest levels, on the biggest stages and alongside some of the greatest to have ever played the game. Her legacy will always be the epitome of just that; a great competitor and one of the greatest of all time.
But you could see her mind turning as she quietly sat alone in her locker that night following the loss to Seattle. With all eyes on her, she understands the immense responsibility during this moment in time. A moment tasked with an opportunity to lead the younger generation in the most difficult of situations. A generation far different than hers.
And the results of Chatman’s experiment, bringing in Pondexter to shape this group of young Fever players, will be measured not in 2018 wins, but years from now.