February 6, 2021
Erica Wheeler ready to join the Sparks
After sitting out the 2020 season, the former All-Star MVP is ready to return to the court
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In 2019, Erica Wheeler was on top of the world. She turned in the best season of her career en route to being named an All-Star for the first time. She cried tears of joy on national television after winning the All-Star Game MVP, making history as the first-ever undrafted player to win the award.
And in the blink of an eye, it was almost taken away. Before the 2020 season began, Wheeler tested positive for COVID-19. Not only that, but the doctors also found fluid around her heart. She had no choice but to opt out of the season, to be sidelined after such promising success the year before.
Physically, Wheeler felt fine, but the unknown was too great to risk.
“I had no symptoms. If you ask me, my health was good, but I’m no doctor,” Wheeler told The Next. “It was pretty tough, probably one the hardest things I think I’ve ever had to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to always play and never have to sit out, so when they said I couldn’t play, that kind of took me to a place where I’m like, ‘Dang, here I do all these things in one season, then I can’t play the next season.’ It was super tough.”
The diagnosis kept Wheeler out of basketball activity for about three months. To keep herself sane and busy, she got to work on a house she had recently purchased. She managed to complete a walk-in closet and took on other little house projects here and there to keep herself focused.
She was eventually cleared to resume activity and immediately got to work on her next move. During the WNBA offseason, many players head overseas and Wheeler made her return to the court in Turkey with Izmit Belediyespor.
She looked pretty solid after having not picked up a ball in a while. She was one of the top scorers on the team at 15.1 points per game and shot 37.3 percent from three-point range. She acknowledged that it took her some time to shake off the rust and get up to game speed again, but she was just grateful to be able to get back on the court.
“To be able to get back on the court and play, that was super amazing for me. That feeling of being able to play, I can’t explain that,” Wheeler said. “Going from three months of doing completely nothing at all, it kind of helps to know that I’m back doing what I love to do. I was eager, I was super hyped. Of course, my body wasn’t the same as if I was working out those three months, but now I’m at a point where my body feels good, I’m in shape, my body is catching up with my brain now.”
And now that she’s in prime shape once again, she’s ready for the next chapter of her career. After going through the majority of her career with uncertainty, she’s got a little bit of stability, having signed a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Her journey has been a long and often arduous one. Although she finished her college career at Rutgers in 2013, she didn’t actually get a WNBA shot until two years later in training camp with the Atlanta Dream. The Dream ended up cutting her during the season and she never really got much of a chance at her next stop with the New York Liberty.
Often in the WNBA, an opportunity is everything and that certainly was the case for Wheeler. She flourished with the Indiana Fever and now she’s ready to continue her upward climb with the Sparks. While she’s established herself in the league now as a formidable player, she won’t allow herself to get complacent. She’s still going out there every game with an underdog mentality.
“I think everybody in the league knows that I’m a hooper. My job is never done; I will always have a chip on my shoulder to always outwork anybody that’s in front of me because of how I came in,” Wheeler said. “I’m going to always work and do what I need to do. Staying within myself and not getting too outside of myself is what’s really key.”
Wheeler had offers from other teams this offseason and it was tough deciding to leave the place she’d called home for the past four years, but for her, choosing to sign with the Sparks was set once she’d had a conversation with general manager and head coach Derek Fisher.
It all kind of materialized once Chelsea Gray signed with the Las Vegas Aces.
“I knew they needed a point guard, but it really was just Derek giving me a call and him just keeping it real with me and telling me what it is that he wants,” Wheeler said. “It just made so much sense to me. We sealed the deal after our conversation. I talked about it with my agent, and everything just made sense.”
Wheeler figures to step into the starting lineup immediately in the backcourt alongside Kristi Toliver, who will be making her return to the court after opting out of the 2020 season as well. Wheeler can play both guard positions, but she does have a knack for playmaking.
She averaged a career-high 5.0 assists per game with the Fever in 2019 and 4.0 assists throughout her four years in Indiana. During her recent play in Turkey, she dished out 5.7 assists per game. She’ll likely share ball-handling duties with Toliver, and the two can play off each other with their outside shooting. Wheeler shot a career-best 38.4 percent from distance in her last season in Indiana.
“I see myself fitting in however Derek fits me in there. I know this team is not as young, but we have a mixture,” Wheeler said. “I think that I’ll fit in well being able to get the ball up the court, push the pace, and just play some defense. Those are things that I do.”
While the Sparks ended up doing some roster shuffling this month, Wheeler likes the group of players that remains and she’s confident they can compete for the postseason. And she’s looking to prove that she’s more than capable of returning to her 2019 form.
“Everybody knows that I’m a good player; everybody knows that I belong. I don’t think I need to say that anymore to anybody else,” Wheeler said. “It’s being consistent and [living] up to that All-Star year that I had. There’s no more, ‘Oh, you went undrafted.’ We all know that, so now it’s time to show us what you got and how you can be consistent with it.”
Written by David Yapkowitz
David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.