Noie: Another WNBA grind awaits former Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — She eased her white Mercedes GLC 300 with Notre Dame license plates and smoked windows into a front row parking space outside Clay High School early Saturday morning.

This was her last day to relax before the grind of another WNBA season commenced Sunday with an 11 a.m. practice down at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. So Saturday offered former Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa a chance to do as little as possible.

Instead, Achonwa did as much as possible.

She had been up since 6 a.m., tending to her dogs at her home in Indianapolis, a home that might not be one much longer as she continues house hunting. She made the 150-mile trek up U.S. 31 and saw some of her Notre Dame family before hitting Clay for an Indiana Fever-sponsored autograph session in conjunction with the organization’s 20th season.

An hour or so after signing her name to this and that, she planned to swing back through campus and visit with Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. Then it would be a quick bite for lunch and back in her SUV. A team meeting commenced at 4.

After nearly four months of nothing but working out and way too much down time, Achonwa is glad to finally resume the job routine of workouts and games and practices and travel and more games.

To bridge the down time between the end of last season’s WNBA run — Achonwa averaged 10.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 26.0 minutes in all 34 games — she spent her “offseason” playing in China. In 25 games with the Jiangsu Phoenix, Achonwa averaged 25.2 points and 11.1 rebounds in 28.7 minutes.

The winter was another stamp on the passport of Achonwa, a native of Guelph, Ontario. A member of Canada’s Olympic team — qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo games starts in November, she’s also played professionally in Italy (one season) and South Korea (two).

That’s what makes this sometimes crazy business of basketball all worth it.

“Yes, it’s a grind. Yes, we sacrifice a lot doing what we do, being away from our families and friends and missing those moments,” Achonwa said. “But it’s all about the experience of traveling and ingraining yourself into a different culture. You learn and grow personally, get a different perspective on life, cultures, people. It’s invaluable.”

So were the four months that Achonwa spent in Liyang, located 150 miles west of Shanghai. Not because of any wins or losses or stats, but more for the duration. Or lack thereof. The Women’s Chinese Basketball Association season runs three months shorter than most European leagues. For Achonwa, that’s three fewer months of pounding that her 6-foot-3 frame has to absorb.

Why has she played in every WNBA game the last two seasons? Not wearing down while playing basically non-stop for 12 months is a big reason. Her body couldn’t take it. Now it can.

“I know that if I want to push this thing as far as I can,” said the 26-year-old, “I need those breaks and that time to work out and build up my body.”

Achonwa has been working out in Indianapolis since January. Her body and her mind are telling her it’s time. To get back to the grind. It’s overdue. Time to get back to business.

Since January, it was only Achonwa and Fever teammate Shemise Johnson working out. Both couldn’t wait for the rest of their Fever teammates to return. Seemingly minutes after another hit town, Achonwa hit them with a text.

“I’ve been like, ‘You want to work out? You want to work out?’” Achonwa said. “I love being in the team environment. I’m so happy to have them all back.”

Tough to watch

Not playing a professional season that stretched toward spring allowed Achonwa to stay connected to Notre Dame’s push toward a possible national championship repeat run. She and several former teammates were in Tampa, Fla., last month for the Final Four. Achonwa was in the Amalie Arena stands next to her best friend, former teammate Ariel Braker watching the national championship game.

Then it happened.

With 62 seconds left in the third quarter and the Irish down 12, Baylor forward Lauren Cox suffered what looked like a serious knee injury. Bears coach Kim Mulkey was in near tears as she walked out to her fallen player.

Braker and Achonwa could relate. All. Too. Well. Both cringed when Cox collapsed. Achonwa couldn’t watch, couldn’t even stay in her lower-arena seat. She asked Braker to let her into the aisle, and then she was off to the concourse.

“I was like, ‘I’ll see you in five minutes,’” Achonwa said. “I had to walk out of the arena. I couldn’t sit there. I was like, ‘I’ve got to go.’

“It was triggering for me.”

Cox’s injury took Achonwa back to March 31, 2014 when she crumpled to the court against, ironically, Baylor in an NCAA tournament game at Purcell Pavilion. Her 145-game college career ended that night with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. She hoped the same didn’t happen to Cox, who eventually was diagnosed with a bone bruise.

Still, it was tough for Achonwa to watch. And relive.

“To have been in that moment where you’re injured, it’s really (bad),” she said. “It brings you back. I still can’t watch injuries. They’re just bad for the psyche.”

A psyche that took Achonwa years to rebuild. Weeks after her college career ended, Achonwa was selected by the Fever with the ninth pick in the 2014 draft. She sat out her rookie year, then played the next three with solid stats. Only last year did she feel like the knee was stronger than it was before it fell apart.

It’s been a long five years.

“It took that long,” she said. “Last year was the first time I felt I was not just back to where I had been, but beyond. I was in great shape.”

A new level

Now a WNBA veteran, Achonwa understands the newness of what awaits the five starters off last year’s Notre Dame team. All were selected inside the draft’s first 20 picks last month. All have an opportunity to start earning their places when training camps open this week.

The game’s the same, but everything about it will change for them. It did for Achonwa. No longer did she have all the structure and set times — practice is at this time, pre-game meal here, post-game meal there, classes then — she enjoyed in college. No longer was a coach or an assistant telling her what to do. She had to drive herself; she had to push herself.

This isn’t college. This is a business. A big business. The five former Irish, be it No. 1 pick Jackie Young or guard Marina Mabrey, the last of the group selected with overall pick No. 19, will learn that.

“In college, you had so much done for you,” Achonwa said. “We had the best of the best at Notre Dame. Now you’ve got to grow up and kind of figure it out, manage your bodies and your minds and your time very differently.

“You’ve got to learn quick or you’re going to be left behind.”

Left behind because there are few soft spots on the floor. All 10 players can play, and do so at a high level. It’s not easy.

“You’re playing with the best of the best,” said Achonwa. “You can’t just coast. Everybody’s good. Each game, each month, each year, you have to get better.

“It’s a long haul.”

One Achonwa can’t wait to make. Again.

WNBA player Natalie Achonwa, who played her college years at Notre Dame, signs an autograph for 11-year-old Kylie Gibbs on Saturday at Clay High School in South Bend.