LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Natalie Achonwa has been playing basketball for much of her life. But there are a few things she's fuzzy about right now because she's been off the competitive court for quite a while. The former Notre Dame star had to sit out last WNBA season -- which would have been her rookie year -- because of a knee injury.
"We had some refs come into practice, and I had to ask them about a rule," the Indiana Fever post player said. "I hadn't played a game in so long, I forgot. It's definitely been a long year, but I'm grateful and excited to be back out there."
Saturday's WNBA exhibition doubleheader at the KFC Yum Center was put together in honor of the Atlanta Dream's Angel McCoughtry and Shoni Schimmel, two Louisville grads who led the Cardinals to national championship game appearances in 2009 and '13, respectively. The event gave the Louisville faithful a chance to show their appreciation again, and is part of the WNBA's strategy of strengthening allegiances between players and their collegiate fan bases.
But it was also an interesting opportunity to get a snapshot of last year's WNBA first-round draft class and measure how its members have progressed. Eight of the 12 first-rounders from 2014 were in Louisville for this event, including two who are just now getting their first WNBA game action.
Indiana's Achonwa, the No. 9 pick then, and Connecticut's Chelsea Gray, the No. 11 selection, had their college careers cut short by injury in 2014 and couldn't play in the WNBA last summer. Gray, who went to Duke, was truly a hard-luck kid with the Blue Devils, suffering knee injuries that ended her junior year in February 2013 and her senior year in January 2014.
Achonwa injured her knee late in Notre Dame's Elite Eight game her senior year. The most indelible image of that entire NCAA tournament was the hobbled Achonwa fiercely encouraging her teammates, "Braveheart"-style, to finish off their victory over Baylor.
Saturday was the first time she's played in a game -- albeit an exhibition -- since that April 2014 night when her Notre Dame career came to a close on her home Purcell Pavilion floor. Achonwa said she didn't go full-out in workouts until the beginning of this month. She started playing five-on-five when training camp began last week.
"There are two things that really kept me going the past year," said Achonwa, who was 3-of-4 from the field for seven points, with four rebounds, in 16½ minutes of play Saturday. "One was being part of the Notre Dame staff; it kept me in a basketball mindset all winter and really helped me stay focused.
"And second was just reminding myself of my competitive nature. No matter what I was doing, I was competing. Whether it was rehab, or just me working alone on my post moves, or shooting free throws. I wanted to have that same drive and passion I had before I got injured."
Gray's Sun squad won Saturday's matchup 76-68, over Achonwa's Fever. The score was not really important on a night when coaches were looking more at various combinations and evaluating the competition for the last few roster spots. Those tough cuts will have to take place before the WNBA season launches June 5.
Getting the chance to see Gray and Achonwa in uniform brought smiles from their coaches, Connecticut's Anne Donovan and Indiana's Stephanie White.
"Our plan was to bring her along slowly. But truthfully, she's ahead of things," Donovan said of Gray, who scored 13 points in just over 17 minutes. "She's not playing like a rookie."
That's because she isn't. At least not a professional rookie. It's her first WNBA season, but she played in Israel during the winter.
"I feel good, my knee feels good, and I'm happy to be here in Connecticut and ready to keep learning." Chelsea Gray on her injury
"She came back from Israel with a ton of confidence," Donovan said. "I love bringing her off the bench; I think that's where she's going to stay for a little while. Because she changes the tempo when she gets in. She's got some things to work on defensively that we'll have to refine, but offensively she sees the floor so well."
Connecticut traded in April for guard Jasmine Thomas, who was a senior at Duke when Gray was a freshman, so now they are working together again.
"She's been great, and I really appreciate it," Gray said of Thomas, who previously was in Atlanta. "I feel good, my knee feels good, and I'm happy to be here in Connecticut and ready to keep learning."
Donovan likes that Gray has "pure" point guard instincts.
"She communicates well," Donovan said. "She's very subtle in how she talks to people; I'm learning that. Initially, I just thought she was quiet. But as I've watched her, you can see she's reaching people, just in a more quiet manner."
Achonwa would not be referred to as subtle or quiet; she was a big part of Notre Dame's success precisely because of her straightforward, businesslike efficiency. White looks forward to Achonwa doing the same with the Fever.
"There are a lot of great qualities that she has, one of which is her basketball IQ," White said. "I feel like she has a point guard's mentality in a big's body. Her timing, her passing, her understanding of when and where to deliver the ball -- she's a terrific quarterback for your team even in the post.
"One of the things for us is figuring how to use her early on, because she's still not 100 percent physically. We don't want to push too much. But she's a hard worker and perfectionist. She reminds me of Tamika [Catchings] her rookie season in terms of maturity beyond her years and grasping the big picture."
Catchings -- who, like several of the Fever's veterans, did not play in Saturday's exhibition -- also had her senior year of college sidelined by injury and had to watch during her first WNBA season. The future Hall of Famer is the gold standard when it comes to a player who was drafted high (No. 3 in 2001) despite an injury that would keep her out for a year.
"I was slow before I got hurt, and I'm slow now. I've always had to find other ways to beat the defense, and ways I can get stops." Natalie Achonwa on playing at this level
Catchings used that summer of 2001 to learn as much as she could about her team and the WNBA, even though she couldn't play. Achonwa and Gray tried to do the same last year, and hope all of that pays off not just this year, but for lengthy careers.
"I saw how much quicker and physical the game was at this level, and I knew I needed to find my niche," Achonwa said. "Look, I'm slow. I was slow before I got hurt, and I'm slow now. I've always had to find other ways to beat the defense, and ways I can get stops."
That wry pragmatism is part of what helped Achonwa get through the disappointment of not playing in the 2014 Final Four and the subsequent surgery and rehab.
Now both she and Gray are hopeful of taking their place alongside the other 2014 draftees who are making their way as young pros. In these games at Louisville, that group also included No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike (Sun), No. 4 Alyssa Thomas (Sun), No. 5 Natasha Howard (Fever), No. 6 Stefanie Dolson (Mystics), No. 7 Bria Hartley (Mystics) and No. 8 Schimmel (Dream).
Ogwumike is sidelined now as she recovers from knee surgery, but she was the WNBA's rookie of the year last season. In the Sun's victory Saturday over the Fever, Thomas had nine points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Then Hartley (14 points) was the top scorer for Washington as the Mystics beat Atlanta 79-55. Dolson had 10 points for Washington.
It was a rough shooting night for Atlanta's Schimmel (2-of-15, six points), but she had six assists, including a couple of the "Showtime Schimmel" variety.
Of course, a comprehensive measurement of all these players won't come until they've been in the pro game for a few years. Now, they are still establishing who they are in this league.
For Achonwa and Gray, it's a relief to finally have the chance to get into that process.
"Just being able to see the ball go in the net against competition is really key," Gray said. "I relied on my family, friends and teammates. They were there for me every step of the way, which I needed."