Davenport raises fierceness on the court

By Tom Rietmann | June 15, 2011
                       
Jessica Davenport's manner away from basketball is low key and easygoing. But Davenport's style on the court might best be described as tigerish.

“She has a quiet demeanor,” Indiana Fever assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg said, “but she has a fierce competitive nature when she gets on the floor.”

Never was that more evident than in the Fever's past two games.

Tuesday night, in Indiana's 82-74 victory over visiting Tulsa, Davenport took over the game when her team needed her most. She roared back from a slow start and scored nine points, blocked two shots and came up with a steal in the final 4 minutes, 20 seconds. The Fever broke open a close game, moving to 3-1 ahead of a three-game, cross-country trip.

“I was pretty upset with myself,” Davenport said afterward. “I think I air-balled a layup, which is terrible. My teammates still wanted to get me the ball, and they still have confidence in what I can do down low (around the basket).”

That confidence in Davenport prevailed one game earlier, too. In Indiana's 86-80 comeback victory over the New York Liberty on Saturday night, Davenport answered the call off the bench with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots.

Indiana, which outscored the home team 24-10 in the fourth quarter Saturday, captured a victory it desperately wanted after losing to the Liberty at Conseco Fieldhouse on Friday night.

“(Davenport) is really playing aggressively now, rebounding and blocking shots,” said Kloppenburg, who works with the Fever's big players. “She really did a lot of good things in the New York game for us to win. She's getting better and better every day.”

Daily improvement is Davenport's main goal. She took that approach in college at Ohio State, where she became the Big Ten's first three-time Player of the Year and the only one to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 300 blocked shots. And she has tried to be that way in four-plus seasons as a professional.

“I think each year (with Indiana), I've gotten more confident and more attuned to what needs to be done,” Davenport said after a Fever practice earlier this week.

The 6-5 Davenport is Indiana's first post player off the bench. She enjoyed a breakout year in 2010, averaging a career-high 7.4 points while hitting a franchise-record 57.1 percent from the field. In a June 2010 loss at Connecticut, she connected on all eight of her shots and scored a career-high 18.

Any development chart on Davenport's WNBA career would show a significant upswing when she arrived in Indiana during the 2009 season after two years with New York.

When the Liberty released her, Davenport's confidence absorbed a blow. But she viewed the Fever as her “new beginning” and quickly bonded with veterans such as Tamika Catchings and Tammy Sutton-Brown, who lifted her up.

About her seasons in New York, Davenport said: “I felt like I was doing as much as I could, but this is the pro game, and you move on to the next player.

“Coming to Indiana, that allowed me to be me -- to be more of a presence down low. And when I first got into the league, I didn't have a high-post game, so I continued to work on that. Now I'm able to be versatile -- score down low but also hit (an outside) jumper.”

During her WNBA off-seasons, Davenport has played in France, Turkey, China and Russia. Her most recent experience in Russia proved helpful because it compelled her to learn how to drive to the basket from the high-post area.

“I was pretty much the go-to player, and I think that helped me offensively,” she said.

In college, Davenport played a starring role, but it didn't inflate her ego. Her Ohio State coach, Jim Foster, gave her books to read about the great post players of the past. He extolled the hard-working approach that Davenport delivered on a regular basis.

And the hard work continues. She is typically one of the last out the door at Indiana practices.

“She's one of those players who are just so coach-able,” Kloppenburg said. “She wants to learn and get better. And she's always working to add something to her game.”

Toughness, too, is part of Davenport's basketball DNA. Last year, after getting body-slammed by Phoenix's Diana Taurasi and suffering a broken nose, Davenport wore a protective mask so she could play the final month of the season and the playoffs.

Davenport shrugged off the blow from Taurasi. “That was one lucky shot,” the Fever center said, smiling.

When Davenport is remembered for her years with the Fever, she hopes it will be for providing instant energy off the bench and consistency in every game.

“I'm not flashy,” she said, “but I just try to get the job done.”