The pick-and-roll can be frustratingly unstoppable when executed properly. This is never truer than when 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike is setting those ball screens, and no one knows this better than Erica Wheeler.
“I think it’s going to be dangerous because Nneka has some really great hands,” said Erica Wheeler. “Me coming off the pick and roll, my ability to be able to shoot, you’re not going to go under the screen. You’re going to come over and if the big is too low, I’m going to take the shot.”
That’s one of the reasons Erica Wheeler is “super excited” about signing with the Los Angeles Sparks, after finishing in the top 10 in the WNBA in assists during the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, while averaging a mere 25 minutes per game.
Wheeler sat out the 2020 season after testing positive for COVID-19. Wheeler said she’s back to full health now, and she’s almost finished playing a full season overseas in Turkey.
Wheeler, the 2019 All-Star Game MVP, will be asked to replace All-WNBA point guard Chelsea Gray. This is no small task, and when coupled with the loss of two-time MVP Candace Parker, it gives the impression that Los Angeles may be an unappealing free-agent destination.
Respectfully, Wheeler said she’s not concerned because, “LA is LA.” In a league now centered around player empowerment via free agency, it was solely Wheeler’s decision to sign with the Sparks, rather than resign with the Indiana Fever.
The Interchangeable Backcourt
Erica Wheeler is 5’7”; Kristi Toliver is 5’7”; and, Te’a Cooper is 5’8”. While this undersized backcourt could be seen as a detriment, all three players are point guards with combo guard skills. LA’s likely starting backcourt will be Wheeler and the 2020-signed Toliver, with Wheeler likely taking Chelsea Gray’s spot in the starting lineup. However, the 29-year-old Rutgers graduate won’t have to do it alone.
During her previous stint with the Sparks, Toliver was a 42 percent three-point shooter, and she’s not afraid to shoot. That’s the type of shooter Wheeler, who emerged as a 38 percent three-point shooter during her 2019 All-Star season, is looking forward to playing with.
“We’re going to go as (head coach Derek Fisher) tells us to go. Whatever he needs from us, that’s what we’re going to do,” Wheeler said during her introductory press conference, which was held virtually. “We’re all versatile and all three of us are different.
Me, Te’a, and Toliver are different. I think the pick-and-roll is going to be super dangerous because we know Toliver can shoot the heck out of the ball. My ability to come off the ball, pick-and-roll and shoot the ball, and being able to read and Te’a Cooper just being young and being able to have that urge to want to be great, so I think we’re definitely versatile.”
That being said, Wheeler will also spend time in the backcourt with Cooper and Sydney Wiese. Both are equally intriguing pairings with Wheeler. Wiese and Wheeler could be productive, with Wiese shooting 50 percent from three-point land for much of the 2020 Wubble season. Meanwhile, Cooper is a hard driving, physical player, who is building a reputation as a staunch defender in the WNBA.
Outside of Wheeler, Toliver, and Cooper, other options for occasional ball handling duties include Sydney Wiese, Brittney Sykes, and even Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.
The Pick-and-Roll with Nneka
“We still have some key players,” Wheeler explained. “Yes, we have some young players but they’re hungry. We also have some veterans like Nneka and Toliver that won championships, so they know what it’s like. The mindset of being a champion, the preparation. Yes, we lost two great players but we still have what it takes.”
Specifically, it will take Nneka Ogwumike, the President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), showing the best, most balanced version of herself.
“Staying ready, staying recovered,” Ogwumike told Winsidr after practicing with USA Basketball in preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, at a February mini-camp in Columbia, South Carolina.
Ogwumike said she trained a lot on her own and, for the first time, didn’t go overseas in the offseason.
A return to peak Nneka, who averaged 19.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 66 percent shooting during her 2016 MVP and championship season, could go a long way in bringing out the best in Wheeler.
“I think it’s going to be dangerous because Nneka has some really great hands,” Wheeler shared. “Me coming off the pick-and-roll, my ability to be able to shoot, you’re not going to go under the screen. You’re going to come over and if the big is too low, I’m going to take the shot.”
If the big doesn’t stay with Nneka, Wheeler said, that’s an easy pass to Nneka for a wide open shot.
“I think it’s going to be amazing. Teams are going to have to guard us honest.”
E Weezy and KT
Oftentimes, a point guard is only as good as the player providing their ball screens.. Other times, it comes down to who they are sharing the backcourt with.
“Playing off the ball, I love that,” Wheeler shared. “You give me a wide open shot, please.”
“(Kristi) having the ball, it may open it up even more for her because you’re not going to help as much off me when you know I can shoot the ball as well. I think it’s just going to open up the game for me and her,” Wheeler explained. “If you don’t guard me straight up, that’s an easy bucket to the basket and if you help, I’m going to kick it to Toliver and she’s going to knock it down… I think it’s very dangerous.”
Derek Fisher’s System
Stylistically, Wheeler is excited to play under head coach Derek Fisher because she wants to get out and run.
“You have Nneka who is going to run the floor just as fast as me,” Wheeler said with a smile on her face.
Wheeler envisions fast breaks being as simple as a quick outlet pass to Nneka for an easy layup.
Wheeler also sees ample opportunities for Brittney Sykes, who has cemented her position as a key player in the Sparks organization. Sykes’ speed and athleticism stand out to Wheeler, and she’s looking forward to Coach Fisher coming up with ways to take advantage of that in the open court.
“I’m a person that works hard… and brings passion to the game,” Wheeler shared.
As the Sparks transition out of the Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray era, it is important for the 2021 Sparks to learn one another’s tendencies, communicate on and off the court, and ultimately figure out how to get the best out of one another.
“I’m going to be a leader regardless because I’ll have the ball in my hand most of the time,” Wheeler continued.
When the season begins, Wheeler will be 30 years old. After going undrafted in 2013, she knows the importance of never giving up.
“Just know that you’re going to get a player that’s going to play with passion,” Wheeler concluded. “The will and want to win in all aspects and on all levels and I’m going to always play hard. I’m going to play hard until the end.”