New Year, Different Situation for Larkins

May 7, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Erlana Larkins arrived at Indiana's training camp last year, she just hoped to scratch and claw and make a WNBA roster for the first time in three years. She shed tears of joy when the Fever retained her.

This year, things are significantly different for Larkins.

She returns to the reigning WNBA champions after becoming one of the league's biggest postseason stories of 2012. Larkins is still scratching and clawing, but in this year's camp, her all-out effort is aimed at expanding her offensive skills and becoming an even larger force as the Fever's starting center.

Larkins' quest for continued development will be a major theme for the 2013 Fever as the team attempts to become the first since 2001-02 to win back-to-back WNBA titles. Coach Lin Dunn and her staff have tinkered with some offensive sets to make sure Larkins gets the ball in scoring position. They want the 6-foot-1 center shooting more and hesitating less.

“I'm working on my game and trying to add things,” said Larkins, noting she wants to earn the trust of point guard Briann January. “I'm trying to shoot the 5- and 7-foot shot because when Bri penetrates, I want her to have the confidence to pass the ball to me and know that six out of 10 times I'm going to hit that shot.

“I'm just trying to add to my game and keep hustling and keep rebounding. That's my thing. If I score, that's a plus for the team.”

Larkins' hustle and rebounds helped to push Indiana to last year's championship. She averaged 10.9 rebounds in the playoffs, including 12.0 in the Finals series against Minnesota. Twice in the four-game series victory over the Lynx, Larkins grabbed 15 rebounds, one off the Finals single-game record.

Often, however, Larkins passed up quality shots. A shortage of confidence seemed to inhibit her. Skills weren't the problem.

Just ask Fever guard Shavonte Zellous, who has played on the same Turkish team as Larkins the past two winters and watched her average double-digit scoring. In fact, Larkins averaged a double-double -- 13.9 points and 14.8 rebounds -- for her 2012-13 Turkish team.

“Absolutely,” Zellous said when asked whether Larkins can be a consistent scorer. “You just have to yell at her sometimes to shoot the ball. She has great touch around the basket. She has a really good jump shot. She can be a good factor on the offensive end.”

Larkins averaged 9.9 points in the Fever's playoff run last season, but most of her field goals were second-chance shots and putbacks. There is little doubt those will continue, given Larkins' rebounding ferocity. But now comes the next step.

“We want her to pick up where she left off last year but even grow her game to the next level,” said Fever assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who works with the team's post players. “We want her where she's offensively more of a go-to, low-block player and also where she hits that high-post shot consistently so people have to come out and guard her. Then she can take people off the dribble.

“So much with her is her confidence, believing in herself and knowing that we believe in her and her teammates believe in her.”

Jessica Breland, a 6-3 forward who signed as a free agent with the Fever, played with Larkins at the University of North Carolina. Breland expects Larkins to follow up on last year's stunning development by authoring another success story, this one as a reliable inside scorer.

“She always had that passion for basketball,” Breland said. “She's big, but she's really quick. She can move. She has quick shot fakes, and she's a very strong player. Her basketball IQ is very high. I think getting the basketball in her hands would be very good.”

In the wake of last year's accomplishments, Larkins remains humble and appreciative of the opportunity she received from Fever President and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf. In fact, when each player was asked to say a little about herself at last Sunday's opening day of camp, Larkins spoke again about 2012 and her thankfulness to the Fever after two years of being overlooked by the WNBA.

“I came back (into the WNBA) and I came back full force,” Larkins said this week. “A lot of people kind of counted me out. A lot of people just didn't want to give me a chance.

“I am blessed and grateful that I was able to get the opportunity with Indiana -- not only get the opportunity but capitalize on it.”

Because Larkins and Zellous spent virtually all of the WNBA offseason in Turkey, they didn't view the Fever's championship DVD until just recently. Memories came flooding back.

“Z and I were talking about that. It was like: 'Did we really win it all?' ” Larkins said. “It was amazing to see our journey. Everybody just came on at the right time to help the team.”

And for the 2013 season in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, there will hang a banner commemorating that championship run and honoring the players who staged it.

“I just smile like, 'Man, I'm a world champion,' ” Larkins said. “This is a priceless, memorable experience.”

Asked about winning another title, she paused and replied, “That's our goal. We know we have a target on our back.”

Larkins likely can handle that target, given what she's overcome to get this far.