Fever notes: On Le'Coe Willingham, Erica Wheeler, Kamiah Smalls

Fever add assistant coach and 2020 draftee, officially lose Wheeler for 2020 season

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Indiana Fever guard Erica Wheeler (17) warms up before the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 28, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Fever hire Le’Coe Willingham as assistant coach

The Indiana Fever announced last week that they hired Le’Coe Willingham — a 10-year WNBA veteran who played from 2004-2013 — as an assistant to Head Coach Marianne Stanley. The hire filled a vacant chair on the Fever sidelines that became available when Assistant Coach April Schilling sustained an injury to her achilles in practice approximately two weeks ago.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be joining the Indiana Fever,” Willingham said on a Zoom conference call with media. “I’m very thankful to Tamika Catchings and Head Coach Marianne Stanley for giving me this opportunity and I do not take it lightly. I’m just ready to get started and excited, and I’m happy to be here and happy to be out of quarantine and in the mix now.”

Willingham graduated from Auburn in 2004 but went undrafted in the WNBA. She signed with the Connecticut Sun as a free agent where she played four seasons, followed by two-season stints with the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm and one year each with the Chicago Sky and Atlanta Dream. Willingham averaged 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds for her career, winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.

“I’m a players’ coach. I was a player, I was in their shoes once upon a time so I know what it takes at this level to be successful,” said Willingham. “I like to get to know them and knowing their personalities, that allows me to understand the best way to reach them and the best way to help them reach their highest potential.”

While several players and coaches have opted out of participating in the 2020 season whether due to COVID-19-related concerns or to pursue social justice initiatives, Willingham claimed she wasn’t hesitant about accepting the position when the offer arose.

“There were never any reservations for me,” she said. “I absolutely love this game and I love being a part of the W. I was a part of the W as a player for 10 years, and then I was into college coaching for a little bit but I always missed being a part of the WNBA. I knew that there’s an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.”

Willingham spent the past six years coaching at the college level, spending time with both Tennessee State and Fort Valley State programs before working in a corporate setting for a year with Toyota.

The entire process of the Fever reaching out to Willingham to discuss the opportunity, Stanley deciding on her candidate and then offering the ex-player the position took approximately a week and a half.

“[Willingham]’s a pro’s pro. She spent many years playing in the league, so she understands what it takes to be successful,” said Stanley. “As good of a player as she was, she’s an even better person, so the kind of addition to our group and our family that we want.”

Willingham has already had the chance to observe a team that’s battled through ups-and-downs and inconsistency this season. Though the Fever have struggled in recent years and have started just 5-8 in 2020, Willingham is eager to work with a roster she claims has no shortage of talent.

“To be a part of developing these young minds and these players, and helping them reach their highest potential — there’s so much potential on this team, there’s so much talent — the ceiling is high as they want to reach,” Willingham said. “Just being a part of the process and helping them realize the potential that they have and understand what it takes to be a professional and understanding what it takes to win at this level, so I’m excited about that. And they’re eager to learn, and that’s always a good thing.”

Erica Wheeler out for 2020 season

Though Stanley had long held out hope that Erica Wheeler — the 2019 All-Star Game MVP that averaged 10 points and five assists last season — would join the team after recovering from COVID-19, it now appears as though that won’t be the case.

Indiana announced Friday that Wheeler is not expected to join the Fever this year, resolving a process that Stanley had previously described as “week-to-week.”

“Erica is following the WNBA Medical Protocol and we will continue to go through the necessary steps to help her during this time,” Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Tamika Catchings said in a release.

Wheeler had testing positive for the coronavirus back in July, and had been going through the league’s quarantine protocol.

“[WNBA Commissioner] Cathy Engelbert has said this and we believe it, and that is first and foremost, the most important thing is the health and wellbeing of our players,” Stanley said earlier this season in regards to Wheeler’s absence.

Lauren Cox, the team’s first round pick in the 2020 draft, also tested positive for COVID-19, but recovered and has since played in nine games and started one.

Fever sign Kamiah Smalls

To compensate for the loss of Wheeler, as well as the extended absences of Victoria Vivians and Stephanie Mavunga, the Fever announced the signing of Kamiah Smalls. Smalls, a 5-10 guard and former James Madison standout, was selected 28th overall in the 2020 draft but waived by Indiana on May 19.

“We are also excited about bringing back Kamiah to the Fever,” Catchings said in the release. “We feel her energy and approach to the game will mesh well with our team and can't wait to get her on the court in a Fever jersey.”

Smalls averaged 14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists over her four years at JMU. She was named 2019-20 Player of the Year in the Colonial Athletic Association, finishing second in the conference by scoring 18.6 points per game during her senior season.