Fever rookie Jeanette Pohlen comes through in the clutch.
by Josh Flynn
Jeanette Pohlen has broken a few basketball hearts. There’s that full court four-second drive for a game winning layup against Xavier in the 2010 NCAA tournament. There’s her 31-point streak-busting outburst against Connecticut. And now Pohlen has brought her game to the WNBA and fans and opponents across the league are finding out it’s easy, but lethal, to fall in love with the Indiana Fever’s rookie guard.
Just ask the New York Liberty. They watched Pohlen burn them for 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting in her third game as a pro. The previous two games she had played just six minutes and scored zero points. Ask the Phoenix Mercury, who saw Pohlen step in for an injured Katie Douglas and play nearly 40 minutes, scoring 17 points in an overtime loss. The Minnesota Lynx’s commentators praised a crunch time foul that sent Pohlen to the free throw line. This rookie could do no harm. She’s not Tamika Catchings or Katie Douglas. Pohlen, however, calmly stepped to the free throw line, drilled two shots, and helped lead her team to a road victory.
Ten games into the WNBA season it’s not uncommon to see Pohlen on the floor alongside veteran All-Stars Catchings and Douglas as the minutes wind down. And if there is a heart to break, she’s going to do it whether it means pulling down a crucial board, slinging a shot from beyond the three-point arc, or hitting those free throws in the waning seconds of a close game. “It gives me confidence knowing [Coach Lin Dunn] trusts me enough to keep me out there,” Pohlen says. “And I think it’s something else I can bring to the table that’s a little different—just trying to stay poised out there when things aren’t going our way or things are getting kind of crazy.”
Pohlen’s introduction to basketball Indiana style was a bit of a reversal, coming during the spring at the 2011 Final Four. Texas A&M had mounted a comeback and the Stanford Cardinal, in their fourth straight Final Four, were on the ropes. With less than ten seconds to play Pohlen stepped on a teammate’s foot. She crumpled to the floor, injured, as an A&M player drove past for a layup. Pohlen sat out the final seconds, watching A&M celebrate a victory. It’s a moment of heartbreak she still thinks about. “I keep thinking I could have stopped the pass from happening and the lay-up,” she says. “So that was unfortunate. But seeing that lay-up go in and knowing I probably wasn’t going to be able to play the rest of the game if it went into overtime was a bummer. Knowing it was my last game in a Stanford uniform was a little sad.”
Less than two weeks later at the WNBA draft Pohlen found out she was returning to Indianapolis when the Fever selected her with the ninth pick. It might seem returning to a venue you have some familiarity with would act as a transitional advantage. But Pohlen arrived in an Indianapolis that had shed its Final Four pageantry, replaced it with checkered Indy 500 flags, and the rookie found herself doing drills on a court now dressed in the Fever’s blue and gold. “It feels like I played in a different arena,” she says, thinking back to April’s national semi-finals.
Conseco Fieldhouse might seem new to Pohlen, but she has been able to find support from a familiar source: her Stanford teammate Kayla Pederson. The Tulsa Shock, with the seventh pick, drafted Pederson and the two rookies, sharing a friendship that began long before they both put on the Stanford jersey as college freshmen, have been able to share their experiences with each other as they learn their way around the WNBA. While both Pederson and Pohlen’s careers are off to exceptional starts—Pederson is averaging 11.7 pts, 5 rbs, and nearly 3 asts per game—learning new systems and navigating new cities is stressful and the two players are able to turn to their friendship when things become a struggle. “We talk a pretty good amount to see how each other is doing—how we are doing as individuals and how our teams are doing—and to just vent and talk to each other,” says Pohlen. “We look after each other.”
Pohlen’s limited minutes in the first two games of the season looked to be bad omen, as if she could potentially become another in a group of Fever draft picks that spend one year with the team before disappearing. Following a one-point home loss to the New York Liberty, the Fever travelled to New Jersey where the Liberty resides while Madison Square Garden undergoes renovation. Something clicked for Pohlen. She showed a maturity that is at least several years down the road for most WNBA rookies. “Before any game I prepare for what might be needed of me. I know my role. My role is to come in and knock down my shot, play defense, and give the team a spark off the bench,” she says. “We were coming off a back-to-back so I knew there was a chance I’d get to play just because it’s tiring for people who are playing a lot. I was prepared and I guess my mindset was to capitalize on it.” And she did capitalize as the Fever rebounded and avenged the previous night’s loss. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: If you can make it in New Yo… Jersey you can make it anywhere. And Pohlen has shown that in each WNBA city she visits.
It’s almost as if Pohlen becomes invisible to her opponents’ defense, as if she lulls them into a hypnotic state as she runs the baseline, waiting for her moment. And once she’s forgotten, she strikes. She credits her success as simply being a rookie on a talented team, not a priority in an opponents’ defensive strategy. “My being lower on that list probably leaves some opportunities to get some shots and maybe get in for a rebound here and there or make an extra pass,” she says. “It definitely opens things up when two people are coming at Tamika or Katie or doubling down on Jess [Davenport] and Tammy [Sutton-Brown]. It leaves somebody open. When you double someone you can’t guard everyone and that’s kind of when I step in. If I have the shot I’ll take it.”
And take it she has, shooting nearly 60% from the field. Pohlen is averaging just six points a game. She finds a way to sneak in a rebound, an assist or steal when she’s on the floor. Some nights she plays 20 plus minutes. Other nights under 10. Her stats aren’t mindboggling. The impact of her play is. She’s a rookie who carries herself with the poise of a WNBA veteran, who makes the crucial play to help the team’s all-stars, who breaks the opponent’s heart when they think they have a chance to win.
And that—breaking basketball hearts—she’s had plenty experience doing.