January points the way for Indiana

By Tom Rietmann | September 4, 2012
                       
INDIANAPOLIS -- Briann January, back on track after a season-ending knee injury last year, is experiencing a 2012 performance highlighted by several milestones and career bests.

January's team, the Indiana Fever, has benefited greatly. The estimable point guard has developed into a a major player for an Indiana squad that has clinched a WNBA playoff berth and now takes aim at gaining the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed.

“Poise and composure,” Coach Lin Dunn said, summing up January's leap.

January, in her fourth professional season, is averaging career highs of 10.6 points, 3.8 assists and .413 shooting on 3-pointers. Since the WNBA's Olympic break, she has been especially effective, playing a steady floor game and twice leading the Fever (17-8) in scoring as the team has won five straight games and seven of eight.

Kelly Krauskopf, the Fever's chief operating officer and general manager, said January's 2012 play has elevated her among the top five or six point guards in the league.

“I think, had she been able to finish her season last year (when she was injured in the 10th game), we would have been able to see then the progress she has made,” Krauskopf said.

“And this year, I really think the (Olympics) break did a world of good for her. That just gave her another four weeks to continue to work on things and continue to get stronger and more confident.”

January has hit at least one 3-point field goal in 18 consecutive games. January's percentage from the arc and her assists place her among league leaders. Her free throw mark of .877 is in the top 10.

“Poise and composure,” Dunn repeated. “She's got more than one speed now. She's using slow, medium, fast and super-fast instead of always going super-fast. I think she's learning to understand pace and change of pace better.

“She's also shooting the ball much better, and I think that's because she has slowed down. She's not in that big of a hurry to get a shot off.”

The Fever's team accomplishments continue to mount. With three more victories, Indiana can become the first franchise in WNBA history to reach the 20-win mark seven times in an eight-year span. Also, the team's eight-year run of qualifying for the postseason ties a WNBA record.

January, especially in the past few weeks, has played a vital role in making those team milestones possible. She, like many of her teammates, views the recent Olympics break as a turning point for the squad.

“We knew if we wanted to get better, we had to start really focusing on the little things,” she said. “It was things like cutting hard, rebounding, sprinting the floor every possession, defensive intensity all the time. That's Fever basketball. We knew if we played like that for 40 minutes, we'd put ourselves in position to be successful.”

As for her own 2012 performance, January said watching from the sideline during her rehabilitation last year helped significantly. She saw how teammates positioned themselves, how they wanted the basketball. She made mental notes about ways to distribute it to them.

January also said she has learned an enormous amount from Dunn, who's demanding on point guards.

“Lin and I have built a relationship in my four years here,” January said. “She has made me a better point guard.

“When you're a point guard of a great team, you hold a lot of responsibility. You are the catalyst on offense and on defense. You need to be an extension of the coaching staff. [The coach's demands] kind of come with the position. If you don't want to accept that, you shouldn't be playing point guard.”

Said Dunn: “Expectations for the point guard are very, very high. What's happening this year is that some of the things I have demanded of her are now automatic. They've become habit.”

Indiana has a strong backup, too, in Erin Phillips. The native Australian averages 20 minutes off the bench, sometimes operating at the point and other times playing in tandem with January.

Phillips' per-game marks are 5.7 points and 2.2 assists. Her 3-point percentage of .474 is eighth in the league.
  
“In Erin, we're talking about a fantastic backup point guard and a two (shooting guard),” Dunn said. “Not many teams have that. It's really helped us. She has won some big ballgames for us.”

Phillips' considerable contributions and versatility also enable January to get rest during games. January averages 28 minutes.

“We've been trying to complement each other,” Phillips said, “and it's working.”

If it continues, Indiana will have a shot at its next goal now that a postseason berth is in hand. The team seeks the East's No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the conference playoffs. Second-place Indiana trails Connecticut (19-7) by 1 ½ games.

For the top seed in the league, the Fever would have to unseat West-leading Minnesota (21-4).

“We'd  like to get home court all the way through,” said Dunn, who will make her sixth appearance in the WNBA postseason as a head coach. “It's going to be a tough challenge for us, but it's not impossible.”