Natalie Achonwa was always going to be more than just Sylvia Fowles' backup at center for the Lynx. Cheryl Reeve knew that when the general manager and coach signed Achonwa to a free-agent contract in January. And that feeling has only grown as she has watched Achonwa be one of the team's best and most consistent players through a week and a half of training camp.
During the offseason, talk of Reeve's significant moves in free agency usually began with Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers. With reason.
But Reeve would like Achonwa mentioned in the same breath. Yes, Achonwa is going to back up Fowles — whose minutes, ideally, would be limited to about 24 a game. But the passing ability Achonwa has shown, along with a growing mastery of the midrange shot, has Reeve ready to play Achonwa at power forward, too. And fans could see both Achonwa and Fowles on the floor together. While Achonwa is not the stretch-four that Damiris Dantas is, she is a strong rebounder, an adept passer from the high post and a definite defensive presence.
"She's been one of the best players in camp," Reeve said. "My confidence in what she can do is really high."
In six seasons at Indiana, Achonwa started in 97 of 168 games, averaging 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 19 minutes per game.
That playing time could grow a bit. She will back up Fowles. But she'll also play some for Dantas, whose situation in her native Brazil made it difficult to train during the offseason. Especially early in the season, as Dantas is rounding into condition, Achonwa could play significant minutes at power forward.
They bring such different talents. Dantas is strong on defense and was the team's most prolific three-point shooter last season. Achonwa is a gritty player who hits the boards on defense and hits teammates with passes at the other end. Reeve loves to have players such as Napheesa Collier, McBride and Powers cutting to the basket, and she loves the way Achonwa can set them up.
"That is my glory," Achonwa said of her passing. "That is the player I am. I'm never going to be the go-to player to score, to make a move on my own. But running the ball through me? It's my niche. That's where I'm great. This is the conversation Coach Reeve and I had before I came here is how well I fit in Minnesota's program."
Don't discount the scoring. Achonwa is averaging 9.8 points per 36 minutes, with a career 52.6% shooting percentage.
Reeve said she liked the way the ball moved when Achonwa and Jessica Shepard were on the court together during the team's preseason game/scrimmage in Atlanta on Saturday.
"She does a great job of communicating," Reeve said. "She knows what's supposed to happen. We always say that with passing bigs, when they're on the floor with smart players, good screeners, stuff just runs so smoothly. You're in sync. This is how you build chemistry — you talk, communicate. So Natalie is constantly in tune to what's happening."
It's also important on a team that, when at full strength, will have a number of scorers to have someone who looks to pass first. The Lynx won a title with a player like that in the high post in Janel McCarville, a player Achonwa said she's been compared to before.
"I can see a play before it happens," she said. "I'm not the fastest, most athletic player. But that's how I've made my stamp on the league — being able to pass, see the game."