Grace Berger seeing increased role for Fever


INDIANAPOLIS – Grace Berger’s playing style on the basketball court has not changed since she made the transition from the Indiana University Hoosiers of the Big Ten to the Indiana Fever of the WNBA.

There has always been grace in the 6-foot guard’s game the way she moves on the court, but also grit in how hard she plays.

The four-time all-league player in Bloomington is now a rookie in professional ball at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, but three-fourths of the way through the 2023 season, Berger, the No. 7 player selected in the first round of the WNBA draft in the spring, is still making the adjustment from one Indiana team to another.

Berger was a starter, the locker room leader of last year’s 28-4 NCAA tournament team. Now, she comes off the bench. Late in the season, she has been coming off the bench more frequently, having hustled her way into more playing time.

Mostly, in the early season, Berger could count her playing minutes on fewer than fingers of both hands. In a recent loss to the Washington Mystics, Berger clocked 14 minutes and 19 seconds of playing time, the most of any Fever player off the bench that game.

It has taken sweat and determination to make the roster and inch her way higher into the rotation, but Berger said with an easy smile that yes, she is having lots of fun doing it.

“You are playing against the best players in the world,” Berger said.

There are 12 WNBA teams split equally into East and West divisions, basically totaling 144 playing spots. Berger repeated that phrase about going up against the best female players in the world more than once.

By extension, simply by holding down a roster slot, Berger is one of those best players. Advancing from high school play to college ball to the pros is an ever-narrowing funnel of opportunity, for men and women, whatever the sport.

Berger, who is from nearby Louisville, and after five seasons in Indiana considered the Fever to be her hometown team. The league draft worked out conveniently for her. Games are played so close to Louisville, family members can attend home contests all of the time.

All last season, in occasional casual mentions, IU coach Teri Moren referred to Berger as a future pro. But there are no sure things when it comes to pro draft choices, and there are always surprises.

Still, when it came to the WNBA draft, Berger felt confident. Her agent assured her signs indicated she would be a high pick, and she was one of 14 prospects invited to New York for the draft in person.

“I was ready for the next step,” Berger said.

The timing of the draft in early April also helped Berger cope with the disappointment of Indiana’s surprise home NCAA playoff loss to Miami in March. She was so busy getting ready to move on, it helped soothe the hurt when the Hoosiers, ranked as high as No. 2 nationally at one point, were upset.

The Fever held the No. 1 pick in the draft, as well, and chose center Aliyah Boston of South Carolina. Then the Fever swiftly added Berger a half-dozen picks later.

The Fever has been an organization in flux. Head coach Christie Sides is in her first season as on-court boss after several stints as an assistant in the league, including previous time with the Fever. Indiana was primed for a rebuild after finishing 5-31 in 2022, and adding two first-rounders was a step.

However, Sides recognized Berger might need a little more time breaking into the speed and physicality of the pro game, just getting used to the next level, and despite her demonstrated work ethic eased her into additional playing time.

Berger worked her way into the opportunity to play more as the season progressed, Sides said. She said she did not want Berger to get discouraged and she needed to “get used to what it was like” on the floor in the WNBA.

“She’s playing significant minutes,” Sides said.

Berger said she was anxious to play more earlier, though that is natural, and she yielded to Sides’ experienced opinion.

“Everyone wants to play,” Berger said. “I think she has been around the WNBA. I trusted her.”

Given her longstanding ties to close-by Louisville and then starring for IU, Berger seems to bring a ready-made cheering section to the games. When she was inserted into the lineup against the Mystics, at different times, there was a murmur of support.

When Berger scored – five points in all, on a layup and a three-pointer – there was some bonus sound from fans. In those 14-minutes-plus, Berger added two assists. The next game, she collected five assists. Last winter for the Hoosiers, Berger averaged 12.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game.

She also suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for a stretch midseason. Yet Berger was not wearing any type of knee brace against Washington. There is no residue from the injury last year, she said, it “doesn’t exist” as an issue.

No knee protection and the same No. 34 uniform jersey for the Fever as she wore for the Hoosiers and with much less playing time, Berger was averaging 3.7 ppg.

There are other cosmetic changes for Berger’s game wardrobe. At IU, she wore pink gym shoes. This year, she is wearing white sneaks. That is partially because of team footwear sponsorship. Also, Berger wore a trademark pink ribbon to hold back her curly hair. Now, she is wearing a blue sweatband instead, color coordinating with teammate Lexie Hull, she said. The pink ribbons are gone, tossed away, probably all of them worn out.

As the season turned toward September, the Fever had a slightly improved record over last season at 9-24 but were not a playoff team.

That represents incremental improvement over last year’s mark. The Fever remain that work in progress, yet still losing close games.

“It’s a process,” Berger said. “You’ve got to keep at it. It’s hard, but it’s cool. You’re playing against the best.”

There was that perspective comment again, bringing with it the implied acknowledgement of what Indiana fans believed these last few years – Grace Berger is one of the finest female basketball players in the world.

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