May 21, 2023
Erica Wheeler relishes chance to lead Indiana Fever back to success
'I love being the underdog'
When the Indiana Fever played their home preseason finale on May 13, there were a lot of instructions being given. Head coach Christie Sides was giving them from the sidelines, coaching her first-ever home game in Indiana. Veteran forward Emma Cannon was giving tips during timeouts. And on the court, the Fever’s new signee, Erica Wheeler, was often the loudest.
Wheeler, a former All-Star point guard, was directing traffic and putting her teammates in positions to succeed. She called out plays and coverages, often pointing to where an action would start. She was exactly what a young Fever team needed from its floor general, and Wheeler finished with 10 points, six rebounds and five assists in a seven-point victory.
“[Wheeler] has always been a leader ever since I’ve known her. But I think that this year, she’s really trying to build something with this team,” Indiana guard Kristy Wallace said in the preseason. Wallace and Wheeler played together for the Atlanta Dream last season.
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This offseason, Wheeler came back to Indiana, where she played from 2016 through 2019. She wasn’t sure what that change would mean for her. Would she need to be a better communicator? How would her skillset translate to a new team? Training camp was crucial to figure out what her leadership would look like and how she could best impact a new group.
The 32-year-old quickly determined that being vocal was important. The Fever kept eight first- or second-year players on the final roster, with Wheeler being one of the exceptions. Her experience in the league — with various franchises and under Sides, a former Dream assistant coach — is valuable, especially as Indiana looks to establish a new culture and style.
That role is exactly what Sides wants from Wheeler. The Fever’s new head coach hopes to emulate some of the things that were successful in Atlanta last season. As part of that group in Atlanta, Wheeler’s leadership and voice will be important for the 2023 Fever.
The Rutgers product said that being a natural leader doesn’t always come easily. But she knows it’s needed with this team, and she is working hard at it.
“‘I need you to teach these girls how to be professional,'” Wheeler told The Next about what Sides asked her to do. “Because walking into my eighth year [in the WNBA], [having gone] undrafted, it just shows the work that I’ve put in and you can tell that I’ve gained so much respect from the league.”
If it weren’t for Sides, Wheeler might not have ended up with Indiana this offseason. She had opportunities to play elsewhere. But the Fever and Sides helped seal the deal. They offered her options in the community that she liked. The contract terms and the role were right. And the coaching staff was exactly what she wanted. That all separated the Fever from other franchises for Wheeler.
“I’ma bet on myself, I’ma bet on Christie,” Wheeler said.
When Wheeler had left Indiana to sign with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2021, the transition from franchise to franchise didn’t go well. The veteran guard wouldn’t get into specifics, but she disliked the move. She needed a mental shift afterward, and Sides ended up providing it. She helped change Wheeler’s perspective in Atlanta, and that was important during 2023 free agency.
Sides and Wheeler’s time together predates Atlanta, though. They also overlapped with the Fever from 2017 through 2019, which were perhaps the best years of Wheeler’s career. It all made sense for a reunion in the Circle City this year, especially when considering how much veteran leadership is needed.
“Damn, this feels like the old Indiana. Like, these are the coaches that helped me become an All-Star,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler signed her two-year contract at 2 a.m. local time while playing overseas in Poland, and she recalls general manager Lin Dunn, who is 76, sending her gifs and emojis around the time of her agreement. “Lin was sending me emojis … Lady, how do you even know how to find these things?” Wheeler said, smiling.
All of the changes in Indiana, from staff to arena, since she left four years ago are thrilling for her. “I was just excited to hear the new changes that they had,” she said. “The new facility that they have is awesome.”
The weight room is much larger and more expansive — it’s “not a box” anymore, Wheeler noted. The practice court and facilities were revamped in recent years, as have many other parts of their home arena. The point guard called the new setup “top of the line.”
Not only does the structure look different, but the team itself has significantly changed. The head coach and front office are different. Only guards Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians remain on the roster. The team is much younger, too. It’s the same Indiana Fever franchise by name, but it’s a totally different experience.
That age gap, and those changes, are why Wheeler feels compelled to be a leader and help set the culture. She wants to be a culture enhancer.
“Be an example of what it’s like to, day-to-day, be on time. To go at everything hard. Show up to meetings, show up to film and just [be] ready to go,” Wheeler said of what she hopes to instill in her younger teammates.
“So I think that was the main thing [Sides asked of me], just teach them how to be a pro and also just be myself,” she added.
It helps that the Fever are creating a culture where learning moments are the norm. Their mottos so far have been about energy and pouring into each other, and veteran leadership contributes to both of those things. Wheeler’s teachings are the embodiment of what Indiana views as pouring into each other.
“Everybody’s eager. Eager for change. Something’s different,” Wheeler said of the team. “As long as you want to learn, that’s easy … you’re going to be a sponge,” she added, noting that everybody is like that. Other Fever players and staffers have also described rookies Grace Berger and Aliyah Boston as sponges.
Beyond her leadership and intangibles, Wheeler is also the starting point guard and has played 45:18 of the first two regular-season games.
Depending on who else is on the court, her role could change. It might involve scoring, though that hasn’t happened much yet. It might involve passing — Wheeler had a team-high five assists in the season opener. There might be times where she plays more off the ball.
With Atlanta last year, Wheeler averaged 8.4 points and 3.9 assists per game. She started 30 times for the Dream and led the offense.
This year, Wheeler’s on-court role will require more defense, too. Sides demands it from every player: It’s not a joke when she says the players are picking up full court the second they step into the gym for practice. Wheeler hasn’t ever been known for her defense, but she will have to this year. She has to lead by example.
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After seven seasons in the WNBA, Wheeler still has so much more she wants to accomplish. Reviving the Indiana Fever franchise is one of those goals.
So far, that hasn’t quite materialized. The Fever are 0-2, though they pushed the Connecticut Sun for 40 minutes in their home opener. But Wheeler and Sides are right where they want to be.
“I love being the underdog because nobody expects you to do anything,” Wheeler said. With the veteran guard leading the way, the Fever hope to win, and create expectations, in the not-so-distant future.