The “locker rooms” in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla., last year weren’t separated by much.
“Just basically fake walls,” Natalie Achonwa said. “There’s no roofs and no rooms.”
So you could hear what was going on from one locker room to the next.
When Achonwa’s Indiana team was preparing for its game on day last summer, and the Minnesota Lynx came back to their locker room at halftime of their game against Washington, everyone could hear Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve’s displeasure.
“Everyone is just listening to noise and like, ‘Oh my gosh, Coach Reeve is mad,’ ” Achonwa recalled. “But I actually was sitting in the locker room and I sat there and was listening to what she was saying, and I was like, in my head, ‘Get it, Coach Reeve!’ Because what she was saying, she was trying to light a fire under her team, and the passion that she spoke with and how demanding she was with her players, that resonated with me in free agency.”
It was a big reason the 6-foot-3 forward chose to sign with Minnesota.
“When I’m thinking of a coach that won’t let you give up on a play, won’t quit on a play, that wants to win every possession, that wants to demand the most out of her players,” Achonwa said, “for me, that was something that was motivating.”
Because it perfectly aligns with Achonwa’s view of the game.
“Natalie knows I do really, really well with physically and mentally tough players, and Natalie is that, and then some,” Reeve said. “Certainly from a leadership standpoint, she’s one of the best in the league. So there’s a lot of intangibles to Natalie that were very, very appealing to us in terms of our championship culture. Those are things we try to cultivate, and she has those things very, very naturally.”
That will show up off the court, as Achonwa isn’t afraid to challenge and demand the best out of her teammates. In recent years, Reeve often has had to fill that role for the Lynx — and she’s done it well. But coaches would prefer those types of demands come from the mouths of players.
“I’m a nice person, but I can come off harsh and I can come off blunt sometimes, so that was my question: How can I lead and how can I embed myself in a team that one of their biggest strengths is their cohesiveness?” Achonwa said. “Coach Reeve said, ‘I think the team is looking for that. They want that. They’re hungry for that.’ And so that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be me. I’m going to take the time at first to get to learn and get to know my teammates and how they take leadership and take communication so that I can be as effective as I can.”
Achonwa’s words carry weight, because the 28-year-old Canadian has established herself both at the WNBA and the international level, and she plays the game in a way all can respect and admire.
She is tough, tenacious, intelligent and selfless. Achonwa used to get under now-teammate Sylvia Fowles’ skin by drawing offensive fouls to remove Fowles from the equation early in games. On the offensive end, she’ll screen, move the ball, whatever needs to be done to help her team find a great shot on that possession.
“I love to share the ball. I love to see a play ahead. I love to pass or set a great screen. I think a lot of the things I do well don’t necessarily come up on the stat sheet,” Achonwa said. “That’s something that I can’t wait to add to the Lynx, is being that person that can help, that can share the ball, that can distribute, that can get (Napheesa) Collier that backdoor pass or get that high-low to Syl, and then on defense … taking charges, being gritty and doing what I can to get us an extra possession.”
In many ways, Achonwa reminds Reeve of former Lynx great Taj McWilliams-Franklin. That mentality and approach is exactly why Reeve — who knew she wanted to add front-court depth behind Fowles and Damiris Dantas this offseason — had a list of one target: Natalie Achonwa.
“It’s the reason why Natalie was so appealing to us, because she’s talking about winning possessions,” Reeve said. “Natalie gets it. That sound byte, that’s why this is the epitome of a perfect match.”