June 15, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Erica Wheeler is back in WNBA and says Sparks can win the championship

More than 9,000 people watched in Las Vegas as Erica Wheeler became the first undrafted player to be named the the MVP of a WNBA All-Star game. After scoring 25 points with seven three-pointers in the 2019 event, Wheeler clutched the silver trophy and told the crowd during an interview, “I belong.”

After a nearly two-year absence from a WNBA court, Wheeler could soon be telling fans, “I’m back.”

The 5-foot-7 guard signed with the Sparks as a free agent Tuesday, leaving the Indiana Fever after recording career-highs with 10.1 points, five assists and three rebounds per game in 2019. Wheeler sat out the 2020 season after testing positive for COVID-19, but she is determined to return to top form.

“I’m an All-Star,” Wheeler said Wednesday on a video conference. “I have to live up to that.”

Although she opted out of the WNBA’s bubble season, Wheeler returned to the court overseas in 2020. She played in 16 games for Turkey’s Izmit Belediyespor, which plays in the country’s top division, ranking second on the team with 15.1 points per game. She added 5.7 assists while shooting 37.3% from three-point range.

Her sharp-shooting could result in a lethal backcourt combination. New Sparks guard Kristi Toliver, who opted out of the 2020 season, is a career 38.7% three-point shooter and averaged 13 points and six assists with the Washington Mystics in 2019.

“The pick and roll is gonna be super dangerous,” Wheeler said, “because we know Toliver can shoot the heck out of the ball and my ability to come off the pick and roll and shoot the ball.”

After graduating from Rutgers in 2013, Wheeler didn’t get her first WNBA shot until 2015, when she signed a training camp contract with the Atlanta Dream and made the team. She appeared in 17 games, averaging 4.5 points and 1.5 assists. She was cut in the middle of the season.

“That took the life out of me,” Wheeler said.

Dejected but determined, Wheeler promised herself that she wouldn’t get cut by another team for any reason within her control. Someone might dismiss her based on the team’s individual needs, but it wasn’t going to be for her own work ethic or ability. A brief stint with the New York Liberty in which she appeared in just three games was “able to turn that light back on.”

The Fever let Wheeler shine.

“Indiana will forever be home,” said Wheeler, who started 107 games in four years with the Fever, including all 34 games in 2019. “But at the end of the day, I gotta do what’s best for me for the first time in my life.”

Unaccustomed to fanfare during her professional career, Wheeler tried to approach free agency deliberately. She never heard her name called on draft night but now had interested teams calling her agent.

Sparks head coach Derek Fisher, who was also named the team’s general manager in December, approached Wheeler with a straightforward attitude. Though the Sparks were losing point guard Chelsea Gray, who signed with Las Vegas, and superstar Candace Parker, who signed with Chicago, Wheeler had no reservations coming to a team going through major personnel changes.

With Fisher at the helm, Wheeler looks forward to a fast-paced offense that can emphasize the athleticism of players such as guard Brittney Sykes. She’s encouraged by the youth of second-year guard Te’a Cooper.

And the Sparks still have Nneka Ogwumike, a former MVP and champion, and Toliver, a two-time WNBA champion.

“I want to win a championship,” Wheeler said. “They know what it’s like to win a championship.”