- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Indiana coach Lin Dunn thinks back to the 2009 WNBA draft and three players -- Briann January, Kristi Toliver and Renee Montgomery -- that she thought had a great deal in common.
"They were all 2-guards trying to be point guards," Dunn said. "All three have been on that journey, because they all like to score. It's been interesting to watch each one of them grow."
Maryland graduate Toliver was the first of the trio to be drafted, taken at No. 3 by Chicago. Before her second WNBA season, she was traded to Los Angeles, where she's averaging 17.1 points and 5.3 assists. Toliver has been a dynamic scorer at times for the Sparks, but -- it's fair to say -- is still learning about the value of possessions. With 53 turnovers in 15 games, she's well on the way to shattering her career high in that regard.
Montgomery -- who was fresh off a national championship season at UConn when she was drafted -- went at No. 4 to Minnesota. Then she was part of the 2010 deal that brought Lindsay Whalen back to her home state to play for the Lynx, while Montgomery returned to Connecticut to join the Sun. She is coming off the bench in a sparkplug role that has really helped the Eastern Conference-leading Sun, as she averages 13.6 points and 2.5 assists.
And January? She's the one who has stayed put since being drafted out of Arizona State at No. 6 by Indiana. Now back after missing most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL, January is averaging 10.2 points and 3.7 assists for the Fever, who just completed a status-quo June.
They went 5-5, which leaves them at 8-5 and in a virtual tie with Chicago (7-4) for second place in the East. Now Indy has some time to practice and enjoy this beautiful, 90-degree-plus heat wave that will suffocate much of the nation for the next week or so.
Then the Fever will finish out the first half of the season with four home games, starting July 5 against San Antonio. Their other foes before the Olympic break are Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, the latter a July 12 game on ESPN2.
It's never wise to get overconfident, but the Fever have reason to feel good about making their eighth consecutive playoff appearance come September.
January is eager to experience it again. Last year, she played in just 10 games before suffering a torn right ACL. She missed the rest of the season -- and the Fever missed her.
"Nothing against any of our other guards, but it helps a lot. It's so nice to have Bri back on the court," veteran teammate Tamika Catchings said. "Just her being able to attack and get to the basket when she wants to opens it up for everybody else."
The Fever clearly were short a weapon last fall when Catchings was hobbled by a foot injury in the Eastern Conference finals and ended up losing to Atlanta.
"I had so much confidence in our team last year; I thought they were going to [make the Finals]," January said. "But when things got tough, I wanted to lace 'em up. It was like, 'Get me out there!'"
There was no chance of that, though; January had to watch as the Dream ended Indy's season.
"Throughout this entire process I learned a ton about myself and the game," January said of getting through her injury. "I was able to sit with the coaches and hear their perspective. Watch other teams and see what they were doing. I worked on patience with myself and discipline -- all those things an injury requires you to do.
"It was tough watching the playoffs, but I am excited for us to get back in that position to make the Finals."
She has been that far once already -- in her rookie season of 2009, when the Fever lost in five games to Phoenix. January laughs in embarrassment when you mention how she played that season, as if you were bringing up some goofy thing she did while in grade school.
"Oh, man. Holy smokes," she said, laughing. "My rookie season in the Finals, I was just out there. I was playing hard, and I understood the game but my understanding is on a different level now.
"Spending time in the WNBA and sitting out last year, it gave me the chance to be a student of the game and boost my IQ. Looking back [on 2009], there are some things I could have done differently."
Sure, but it was hardly a bad playoff debut -- especially considering she was just 22 years old then and surrounded by vets, including former Fever guard Tully Bevilaqua. Coming off the bench her rookie season, January often was able to make things happen, averaging 6.9 points and 2.3 assists. Her numbers have improved each year, including the injury-shortened season of 2011.
"Bri has been a shooting guard most of her career, so she had to change her mentality," Dunn said of January handling the point. "But we like the fact that she can score the way she does. I think with our best point guards in the league -- Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen -- they can run a team, but they can also score. The days of the point guard not scoring are gone.
"Bri plays so hard and so well on both ends of the floor. There are a lot of guards that have great offensive skills, but very few have that and the defensive tenacity that she does."
January said it was a "return to the basics" -- especially on defense -- that got the Fever out of a skid earlier in June when they lost four of five games.
"We understood we were starting slow and not hanging our hat on defense," January said. "We weren't attacking opponents and getting to the rim. Talking about that as a team and executing, it got us back to playing our style of basketball."
At their best so far, the Fever are the team we've come to expect them to be when they're playing well: defensively stingy, offensively opportunistic. Such was the case Wednesday, when Indy bounced back from a loss at Atlanta the night before and beat Chicago 81-72 in a day game in the Windy City. The Fever hit 11 3-pointers, four of them from second-year guard Jeanette Pohlen.
So far, Indy has Chicago's number in 2012, beating the Sky all three times they've faced off. The Fever are 2-1 against Atlanta, and 1-2 against Connecticut. Those are the teams with which it looks Indy will jostle for playoff position the rest of the season. January is ready to be there for the whole thing.
"One thing I've learned is to be very present and appreciate every moment when it comes around," January said. "And it will, because we're going to work hard to get back [to the Finals]. It's really just about embracing the situation."