The Fever point guard, who was undrafted coming out of college, is now a WNBA All-Star
Erica Wheeler continues doing things that few players in WNBA history have ever done.
On July 14 against Connecticut, Wheeler recorded her 500th career assist. She became just the fifth undrafted player in WNBA history to record 1,000 points and 500 assists.
A day later, Wheeler was named as a reserve for the 2019 All-Star Game. It will be the first All-Star appearance for the fifth-year point guard out of Rutgers.
“The dream was always to play in the WNBA,” said Wheeler, according to the Fever’s press release on July 15. “But being an All-Star? That takes hard work. It means the world to me because it validates my journey – never give up, always work hard and do everything you can to get to the next level. Coming in undrafted, this is really different for me. I was speechless when I found out.“
“It’s amazing,” she added. “There are some pretty iconic players in the All-Star Game. Iconic names. For my name to be on the same list as those people, I’ll take that any day.”
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Wheeler went undrafted in 2013 after graduating from Rutgers, where she played four years under C. Vivian Stringer. From 2013-2015, she played professionally in Puerto Rico, Turkey, and Brazil. In 2015, she broke into the WNBA by playing 17 games for Atlanta and six with New York. In 2016, she was signed by the Fever as a training camp free agent. She has been a mainstay on the Fever ever since.
Before Indiana’s game against the Sun, Wheeler reflected on what she had to do to earn — and keep — a roster spot in the WNBA. She knew an undrafted player like her had to bring something unique to set herself apart.
“I feel like my special thing is anytime I walk into a room, you’re going to feel me, whether it’s with my energy, with how I talk, how I dress, you’re going to feel me. You’re going to feel my presence,” said Wheeler, who was one of 13 undrafted players to make a WNBA roster when final cuts were made in May. “So I think I’ve just brought that presence of energy and just being relentless, just being in this league and not ever getting comfortable or thinking that I’ve made it and that I don’t have to work extra hard. Every day, I still work hard. I’m five years in and I’ve signed a two-year deal, but I still come in here as if I can be (cut) tomorrow.”
According to the WNBA’s All-Star Game press release, Wheeler is the only 2019 All-Star who went undrafted. She will be the first undrafted player to play in the game since Erika de Souza in 2014.
Wheeler is second in the league with 99 assists. She’s averaging 11.4 points per game and is shooting 40% from behind the arc. According to the Fever’s press release, Wheeler is the only WNBA player who is averaging more than 10 points and 5 assists per game while shooting at least 40% from three this season.
Since sharpshooter Victoria Vivians is out for the year with an ACL injury, the Fever have needed someone besides Kelsey Mitchell to step up as a perimeter threat. Wheeler has done just that. She set season-highs with six three-pointers and 28 points during a victory at Chicago on June 21. She hit four from behind the arc on June 29 at Las Vegas, including one with 17 seconds left that tied the game. She’s had five or more assists in 11 games.
Wheeler says her hard work is the reason for her success. She’s always one of the first players warming up before Fever home games. It’s common to see her on the court two and a half hours before tipoff.
“My main goal is to go up a notch each year, whether it’s 2%, 3%, or 90%,” Wheeler said. “I’m just trying to stay consistent and be whatever I need to be for my team, whether it be scoring points, getting my teammates involved, or getting us organized.”
Tully Bevilaqua, who is the Fever’s player development coach, was also an undrafted point guard who had an outstanding WNBA career from 1998-2012. Bevilaqua won a title with Seattle in 2004, then played for Indiana from 2005-2010. She finished her career with 1,758 points and 854 assists. Bevilaqua was fourth in Fever history in assists (she had 467 with Indiana) until Wheeler passed her a few games ago.
“Her achievements come from the hard work that she’s put in and she doesn’t take it for granted because she knows that you’ve got to maintain that and build on that to stay where you are,” Bevilaqua said before the Connecticut game. “So, it’s great to watch her out there. She leads the team on the floor and it’s great to see that she overtook my spot on the assists … I hope she’s got many more in her to help lead this team to another championship.”
Bevilaqua knows how difficult it is for undrafted players to make it in the WNBA. That’s why she’s always there when Wheeler needs to talk.
“I think sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. She gets pretty tough on herself,” Bevilaqua said. “I just tell her, every now and then, just take a deep breath and just try to shake off whatever happened … and move on to the next play because nobody is perfect. That’s how you move on from that mistake. That shows your true character.”
Wheeler’s character has impressed her teammates and coaches. Head coach Pokey Chatman, who starred at point guard at LSU from 1987-1991, knows she can be tough on her point guards. She’s been impressed that Wheeler has shown the mental strength to handle the demands of playing for a coach who was also a point guard.
“I’m tough on her and she handles it,” Chatman said before her team played the Sun. “I remember saying something to her in the locker room in Atlanta that I wouldn’t have said to many players. I said ‘If you don’t play well, we don’t win.’ That’s a lot for an undrafted player who’s found her way in this league, but she can handle it. She wasn’t mad (at me). She gets it in that regard.”
Even though Chatman can be tough on her floor leader at times, she always has respect for Wheeler making it in this league as an undrafted player.
“She’s always been an enthusiastic, energetic, whatever-the-team-needs player,” Chatman said. “It’s always easier for those players who have been in the league 10-12 years, your All-Stars, and players who got drafted in the top five, so I respect her for that.”
She also respects the way Wheeler helps her teammates. Sometimes, Chatman has second-year guard Kelsey Mitchell play the point while Wheeler slides over to play shooting guard. In those situations, Chatman has been impressed with the way Wheeler communicates with Mitchell during live action and when they analyze plays later.
It’s not difficult to get Wheeler’s teammates to talk about how much they respect her.
“I think the undrafted mentality of her and having to work for everything is what’s pushing her through and it’s making her become one of the great players in this league,” Fever guard Tiffany Mitchell said. “Having a chip on her shoulder and being able to fight through any type of adversity, it definitely fits her. You could tell she brings that to our team. When things get down you can tell she’s the emotional part of our team.”
Rookie point guard Paris Kea would love to make the same impact on this league as Wheeler has. In the meantime, Kea is learning all she can from her All-Star teammate.
“I feel like she reads pick and rolls well, and I think that’s something that I look to her for, that leadership role,” Kea said. “She’s always talking to me, whether it’s on the bench, in the game, or at practice, she’s always in my ear. Just that big leadership role. Being undrafted and making a print in the league is big.”
The only thing bigger than that is the amount of time Wheeler has spent on the practice court. If you’re wondering why Wheeler made her first All-Star team, just walk by Bankers Life Fieldhouse and look into the windows of the Fever’s practice court. There’s a good chance you’ll see Wheeler inside.
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