Taking Opportunity and Making a Splash

Erlana Larkins, Karima Christmas, Jessica Breland

By Claire Randich | July 8, 2013

In a league where rosters have only 11 players and its original first draft selection, Tina Thompson, is still active in her 17th season, few second-round draft picks make AND secure long-term roles on WNBA rosters.

That is unless, of course, you are Karima Christmas, Jessica Breland or Erlana Larkins. Larkins, to her credit, was actually was a first-round pick with then 14 teams. But as the 14th selection in 2008, she joins 2011 second-round picks Breland (13th overall) and Christmas (23rd) as current standouts who entered the WNBA as longshots. All three, in fact, found themselves temporarily seeking jobs before eventually finding employment and success with the Indiana Fever.

The former Tar Heels and a Blue Devil, once rivals in the ACC, have now joined forces to make a splash for the injury-ridden Fever. Each taking on a unique role and making the most of the opportunity presented them. Fever President and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf attributes their success to a strong college career, progression as athletes and a timely opportunity. Krauskopf had followed each of their careers since college and knew what kind of player the team would be getting if they were signed.

“A lot of players that are given the chance to fill a role either do it or they don’t. What we are seeing from them now is just the ability to get better,” Krauskopf said.

“When a player has been cut a couple of times or has been out of the league for a while, and then all of the sudden gets a chance to play a lot of minutes, that’s when you see the players that can make it or break it.” Karima Christmas has definitely “made it” this season.

Christmas was drafted late in the second round by Washington in 2011. The former Duke star was waived by Washington and signed as a free agent by Tulsa later that same year. The Fever acquired Christmas in a midseason trade last summer.

A few strong performances from Christmas during the playoffs and WNBA Finals last year helped her maintain a role with the Fever in 2012 and the current status of this year’s team has helped her settle into an expanded role. She believes her hunger has played a factor in her game play.

“Last year I was kind of timid when I came to this team midseason. Now I am more comfortable and confident with myself and I want to make an impact whenever I come into the game,” Christmas said. Another player becoming more confident on the court is Breland. She was drafted in the second round by Minnesota two years ago. However, she spent time with New York, Connecticut and Washington before finding herself out of the league in 2012 – and on the Fever roster in 2013.

Breland continues to establish herself as a power forward this season. She had a career high 10 points and 10 rebounds in a 71-63 victory against Seattle. Most recently, she added six points and four rebounds in

Saturday’s 78-66 win against Connecticut. In her past six games, she has totaled 44 points and 40 rebounds, far exceeding the full season totals from her rookie year.

According to Breland, there’s only one word to describe her role on the team – REBOUND.

“The team expects me to get better every day, to rebound, to defend and to bring energy on the court,” Breland said. “In college, my coach [Sylvia Hatchel] instilled this rebound mentality in me. It was my job to get every ball and work hard for it.”

Breland’s former North Carolina teammate and current Fever mate, Erlana Larkins, agrees.

Larkins was drafted by New York in 2008, but after two years with the Liberty, spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons out of the league. She signed a free agent contract with the Fever in 2012 and worked her way in to a starting spot during the Fever’s playoff run.

She averaged 10.9 rebounds throughout the 2012 playoffs and routinely challenged playoff and Finals single-game records for rebounds.

“The Olympic break last year really helped me out,” Larkins said. “It gave me a chance to get in the starting lineup and to build chemistry and repetition with the first group.”

“I think my effort is the reason I’ve been so successful. As long as you put forth your best work, coach is going to be proud of you.”

Larkins has definitely put forth her best effort this season already. She recorded the first double-double of her career in Indiana’s home opener against Atlanta, notching 10 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes.

Dunn and Krauskopf both have watched these players since they played in college, and both are proud of their continued development.

“Part of what I do is keep an eye on players that have made teams and then been released,” added Krauskopf. “I follow their careers overseas and see how they are playing against other teams that have good WNBA players.”

“I saw great potential in each of them. They are taking a great opportunity that has been given to them and they are getting better every game.”

Just as these players have taken advantage of the opportunities they have been given, they shared advice to those who see their stories as inspiration.

“Never give up,” Christmas said. “You never know when you’re going to get an opportunity like this.”

“Always believe in yourself,” Larkins said. “There are always going to be people who are going to say you can’t do something. As long as you believe you can, that’s all that matters.”

College rivalries aside, WNBA fans will continue believing in these former ACC stars so long as they continue their upward trend with the Fever.