Indiana Adds Depth with Pair of Collegiate Forwards

By Tom Rietmann | April 14, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- With two first-round selections in the 2014 WNBA Draft, the Indiana Fever grabbed a pair of 6-foot-3 forwards -- one to enhance the roster immediately and another to make contributions starting in 2015.

Picking at No. 5 overall in Monday night's draft, the Fever tabbed Natasha Howard, a fleet and promising player from Florida State. She is the Seminoles' all-time leader in rebounding, is No. 2 in points and ranks No. 3 in blocked shots. In the 2013-14 season, she set a Florida State record with 15 double-doubles.

At No. 9 overall, a pick the Fever acquired from Phoenix in a March trade, the team selected Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa, a native of Canada. Achonwa suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during Notre Dame's march to the 2014 NCAA Final Four. She will undergo surgery in South Bend, Ind., on Friday and report to the Fever as soon as possible to begin her preparation and rehabilitation for the 2015 season.

Howard, who has a 7-foot wingspan, is tough and intense as a competitor. She will arrive in Fever training camp, which begins on April 27, and take a position as the backup to star power forward Tamika Catchings.

As Coach Lin Dunn put it, Howard is “someone we can develop as the heir apparent at the four spot (power forward). We did not see anybody better, even close to being better, than Howard.”

Catchings, the WNBA's Most Valuable Player in 2012, will be 35 years old in July. Fever officials fully expect her to continue as a high-level player but would like to manage her playing minutes to keep her energy and health at peak levels.

Howard, it is hoped, can help make that happen and also work toward becoming the team's future at power forward.

“We want to start grooming somebody to be that next four player,” said Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's president and general manager.

Howard made dramatic improvement between her junior and senior seasons at Florida State. She hit 59.4 percent from the floor as a senior while averaging 20.5 points. She averaged 9.3 rebounds and blocked 76 shots.

“She can do a lot of things,” Dunn said about Howard. “She has great back-to-the-basket moves. I could see her and Catch playing together as well as her playing behind Catch.”

With two first-round picks, the Fever considered some draft-night trading. Indiana had interest in selecting Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride and suspected it would have to trade up from the No. 5 spot to draft her.

“The team we were going to trade with opted out,” Krauskopf said.

McBride went to San Antonio on the third pick. Indiana stayed put, grabbed Howard and was delighted to have her.

“If you haven't seen Howard play, watch some film of her. She's unbelievable,” Krauskopf said.

Howard got a chance to meet Catchings last Friday when the latter spoke to prospective first-round draftees during a WNBA rookie orientation. When she learned Monday night that Catchings would now be a teammate and mentor, Howard gushed about the possibilities.

If Howard shows the same kind of resolve and work ethic she did before her senior year with the Seminoles, the transition to the WNBA will go nicely.

“I just pushed myself to become the top player to come out of Florida State,” Howard said in a teleconference call, explaining her collegiate goal.

In Achonwa, Indiana sees a player who will be worth the wait until 2015. Before her injury at Notre Dame, Achonwa was shooting 61.1 percent and averaging 14.9 points as a senior. She averaged 7.7 rebounds and blocked 39 shots as one of Notre Dame's top defensive players.

Achonwa, too, met Catchings at the WNBA's rookie orientation. Catchings told the Fighting Irish player about her first WNBA season. Like Achonwa will do, Catchings sat out her rookie year with a knee injury.

Catchings' message to Achonwa last week was simple and direct: You'll get through it. Then you'll thrive.

“Her motivation, her inspiration, is why I'm so excited to be her teammate,” Achonwa said about Catchings in a teleconference call. “She makes everybody around her better. For me to have the opportunity to be around someone who went through a situation similar to mine, it makes it that much easier for me.”

Achonwa, from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, played for the Canadian national team in the 2012 Olympics in London. She performed in three Final Fours with the Irish and appeared destined to star in the 2014 edition if she hadn't suffered the ACL injury in the Elite Eight.

Being selected by Indiana at ninth overall in the draft, she said, was a high point after dealing with one of her lowest lows.

“I love Indiana,” she said. “To be able to go to a great team like Indiana and to also be in the state of Indiana, it's a blessing.

“These last couple of weeks, I think I've hit every single emotion that can be described to man. I'm just looking forward to getting back into the gym and shooting and getting my jump shot going again.”

Dunn described Achonwa as a strong passer, a tough-minded defender and a true leader. “We just thought at the ninth pick, if she was there, we had to take her,” Dunn said.

Indiana didn't have a second-round pick. In the third round, the Fever selected Haiden Palmer, a 5-8 guard from Gonzaga. She averaged 15.1 points as a senior with 87 assists.