UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- The WNBA's forced Olympic break took the wind out of the sails for most teams -- but it may have saved Erlana Larkins' career and in turn the Indiana Fever from an early post-season exit.
Despite being a first-round pick in the 2008 draft, Larkins struggled to find a place in the league. Her rookie year was OK (4.8 points, 2.7 rebounds in 12.4 minutes a game), but she regressed in 2009 and was cut by New York in the Liberty's 2010 training camp. In 2011, she was given a shot by Phoenix, but the Mercury cut her as well -- and it was not a good experience for Larkins.
"I don't want to talk about Phoenix," says the 6-1 North Carolina grad. "I definitely don't want to talk about Phoenix."
But now she's happy to talk about Indiana, where she's not only found a home, but a late-season starting role for the Fever. In fact, she's become a force in postseason, averaging a double-double in the Fever's first four playoff games.
Double-doubles have become her trademark. Larkins has averaged at least 10 points and 10 rebounds a game three of her past four seasons in Turkey, and was just short in 2009-10.
Larkins' teammate in Turkey was Shavonte Zellous, a key member of the Indiana roster for the past two seasons. "She was in our apartment and we were roommates," says Zellous. "She talked about wanting to get back into the league. I knew we needed some post help and I said, `You should come to the Indiana Fever'."
Luckily for Larkins, Indiana coach Lin Dunn agreed with Zellous. "We were looking for a free-agent post player who could rebound," Dunn says. "(General manager) Kelly (Krauskopf) found her overseas and talked to her agent. We decided to give her a shot because she was a great rebounder at North Carolina" -- and it didn't hurt that Zellous was able to offer eyewitness testimony to Larkins' rebounding prowess.
"From day one, we liked what she did," Dunn says, but Larkins' playing time was limited early in the season. "I just think it took her a while to learn our system, offensively and defensively," says Dunn -- but then the league shut down for London 2012. "The (month-long) Olympic break was good for her because now you had a second training camp and that really benefitted her."
And then Zellous got in the act again. "After the Minnesota game, we lost Bri (Briann January) and Z (Zellous) in the same game," says Larkins. "I was inserted into the starting lineup in those last games" -- and she took full advantage.
"I guess I helped her out by getting knocked in the head," says Zellous with a laugh. And then there was the fact that the Fever were struggling on the boards. "We wanted to put our best rebounder in the lineup," says Dunn, and even though Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport are both 6-5, Indiana's best rebounder is now the 6-1 Larkins.
And even the partisan fans in Connecticut picked up on Larkins' improved play. They noticed her slimmed down physique since her first go-round in the league, and they were concerned about her effective play in Game 1 of the series. Dunn, however, thought the Fever should have used her even more.
"She shot 50 percent but she only got eight shots so we have to do a better job getting her touches," Dunn said in the postgame conference after Larkins finished with nine points and eight rebounds against Connecticut. When she did get the touches against Atlanta, she produced: She scored 14.3 points and grabbed 10.7 rebounds a game, which was much closer to performance as a collegiate star. At North Carolina, she averaged 13.7 points per game, 8.3 rebounds and shot 57.1 percent from the floor and was a consensus All-American.
And now, after a four-year detour, she's reproducing those numbers at the WNBA level -- and just in time for the Fever to make a run for their first WNBA title.
It's been a journey for Larkins, and now that she's back in the W, she's making the best of it knowing her future in the league cannot be taken for granted. "I'm just thankful for the opportunity to help the Indiana Fever," says Larkins.
A second chance that should make Connecticut fans nervous.