Davenport elevates her game

By Tom Rietmann | August 4, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana Fever executives and coaches who watch Jessica Davenport at every practice and every game and see her interact with teammates away from basketball describe a woman who is even-keeled and resolute.

“She sort of has a quiet confidence,” Fever General Manager Kelly Krauskopf explained  about Davenport. “She may have a rough shooting night, but you'd never know it. She'll just keep coming right back at you. You have to have that internal confidence or you can lose your way. That's what you need to move to the next level in the WNBA.”

Moving to the next level is a goal for Davenport. The Fever's 26-year-old center, who typically comes off the bench but plays more than 30 minutes a game, is averaging 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds this season. After averaging 5.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in her first four WNBA seasons, Davenport is among the leading candidates for the league's 2011 Most Improved Player Award.

That, however, is not something she wants to discuss.

“Right now, our team is rolling,” Davenport said about a Fever club (14-6) that has won four consecutive games and 11 of the last 14 and sits atop the Eastern Conference standings. “Right now, our focus, and my focus, is making sure our team is on the right track.”

Davenport arrived on the Indianapolis scene a few games into the 2009 season after being waived by the New York Liberty. The former Ohio State star, who grew up in her college town of Columbus, signed with the Fever to be a backup for Tammy Sutton-Brown. She performed that role nicely in 2009, averaging 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds before elevating her marks to 7.4 and 2.8 in  2010.

After last season, Fever Coach Lin Dunn met with Davenport and gave her something to think about while she played in Russia this past winter. Dunn wanted her 6-5 center to work on being more physical and more assertive offensively and defensively. The coach wanted her to develop her body balance, strength and ability to protect the ball.

“She ended the (2010) season as a good player,” Dunn said. “I think the challenge now is, do you want to go from good to great? All of those things (that the team instructed Davenport to work on) start adding up and you start doing better. And the next thing you know, your name is mentioned in the same breath as (WNBA standout centers) Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles. That's what I want for her.”

As Dunn also told Davenport, that continuing development would require hard work. Which has never been a problem for the left-handed center. Part of the reason she chose to go to Russia was the lengthy, October-to-April schedule that enabled her to play nearly 50 games. She spent her time there practicing what the Fever needed while leading her overseas club in scoring (17.7 points a game) and rebounding (8.9).

It was all about learning “to impact the game,” Davenport said. And Indiana has benefited from those lessons. Davenport has scored in double digits in 12 consecutive games, playing a huge role in the club's push to first place. She led the Fever with 16 points in last weekend's 98-63 rout of the Los Angeles Sparks. She also leads Indiana in blocked shots with 35.

Davenport has developed into one of the top free-agent acquisitions in the Fever's 12-year history.

“It just worked,” Krauskopf said about the signing of Davenport. “Sometimes players fit into different situations for different reasons. I think she's been very coachable by Lin. She's open to getting better. She's a natural shooter with natural ability. Fast forward to three years later, and she just continues to get better and is certainly a candidate for Most Improved Player.”

The Most Improved Player is selected by a national media panel and comes with a $5,000 prize for the winner. In 2008, forward Ebony Hoffman won it while she was playing in Indiana.

A recent story on Yahoo.com  listed Davenport among the top candidates for 2011 along with Chicago's Epiphanny Prince, Washington's Matee Ajavon, New York's Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn, and Los Angeles' Kristi Toliver. All of them have significantly improved their scoring and overall play over past seasons.

What Davenport perhaps has in her favor, however, is Indiana's conference-leading record and her part in producing that.

“I just think (Davenport) is brimming with confidence right now,” said Chris Denari, the Fever's radio and television broadcaster. “She knows she's in the game to score and be a low-post presence.”

Davenport has started in eight of the Fever's 20 games this year. Lately, the 33-year-old Sutton-Brown has returned to the starting center position, which means, perhaps, that Davenport could also be considered for the WNBA's Sixth Woman Award. But that, too, is something Davenport doesn't care to talk about.

“I think Tammy Sutton-Brown has been good for the development of Jessica,” Denari said. “Tammy has helped to educate her.  They have developed into a really good one-two punch.”

But that development continues. Davenport knows the road to fulfilling one's potential is winding and difficult. Davenport's steady demeanor and unwavering approach serve as her GPS system, keeping her headed in the right direction.

“Dav is really smart,” Dunn said. “She's like a sponge. She learns from her experiences, and I think she's continuing to grow her game.”