March 19, 2019 | 41° F

Ahead of the class

Junior guard Erica Wheeler always plays with a chip on her shoulder.

But when the Rutgers women’s basketball team welcomed the No. 3-ranked recruiting class to Piscataway this summer, there was nothing extra the Parkway, Fla., native needed to prove.

And when the Scarlet Knights open the season Sunday against California with a healthy Nikki Speed, who Wheeler replaced last season, Wheeler will not play to impress.

The only thing different this season for Wheeler is her year of eligibility.

Speed and the No. 6, 11, 18 and 51 overall recruits in the country — all of whom play guard —have no bearing on Wheeler’s role as a scorer, said head coach C. Vivian Stringer.

“Her role doesn’t change at all,” Stringer said. “Erica is a shooter, and at the end of the day, we better be able to shoot the ball. She just is coming with a lot more experience and she’s a lot more apt to take drives and do the things we would want and we would expect from a junior.”

As a sophomore, Wheeler showed flashes of her game-changing ability.

The Knights opened last season with two road losses against Cal and Stanford, but contrary to expectations, April Sykes, Khadijah Rushdan or Chelsey Lee did not lead the team offensively.

Wheeler took care of the scoring burden as the first option off the bench, notching back-to-back 16-point outings with a 13-for-29 shooting clip.

But when the former McDonald’s All-American entered Stringer’s starting lineup because of an injury to Speed, her production turned inconsistent.

There were games like the Knights’ against West Virginia on Feb. 26, when the guard scored 22 points in a Rutgers win. But there were also nights when Wheeler failed to produce, like the Knights’ regular-season meeting against Connecticut last year, when Wheeler went scoreless.

One reason for the inconsistencies was the guard’s reliance on jump shots rather than driving to the basket — something Wheeler worked on over the summer.

“[I worked on] getting into shape because I know that we are going to be a fast team,” said Wheeler, who was fourth last season with 9.7 points per game. “[I also worked on] ball handling. I know I can shoot, but just being able to handle the ball and just being more calm.”

Stringer openly said many times last season that Sykes and Wheeler were the team’s shooters, and entering Sunday, the Hall of Fame coach expects Wheeler to assume a more well-rounded offensive role.

Wheeler had plenty of time in the offseason to sharpen her skills while playing with the freshman class, Sykes said.

There may not be any real pressure on Wheeler to perform, but Sykes noted Wheeler embraced the competition Stringer brought to Piscataway in the offseason.

“I don’t think it puts a lot of pressure on her, but I think it makes her want it more because Erica’s a competitor,” Sykes said. “She wants to shoot the ball and that’s able to get her in position. She’s a shooter. It’s making her more comfortable to get in position and just do what she’s capable of doing.”

But the scoring burden does not fall solely on the team’s top returning 3-point shooters this season, Wheeler said.

More offensive distribution comes as a result of the freshman class’ scoring caliber, prominent with guard Briyona Canty and wing Betnijah Laney.

Another luxury the Knights have this season is a full 13-player roster, creating practice environments that foster hard-nosed competition.

“I’m really happy because in practice, it’s so competitive,” Wheeler said. “You can’t take a play off in practice, because everybody is competing and the coaches get so hype. It’s just a bunch of competitiveness, and that’s what I love.”

But after starting 21 of 33 games last season with most coming down the stretch, Wheeler’s role this season remains undefined.

Not only do the Knights bring in a top-tier class of guards, but they also return a healthy senior in Speed, who struggled for most of last season with an ankle injury.

Wheeler served as one of Stringer’s first options off the bench at guard in her rookie season.

She started last season in the same role before Speed went down with her injury.

Only Stringer knows how she plans to orchestrate the Knights’ rotation with its talent-laden freshman class, but Wheeler does not plan to change her game at all.

If other teams forget about her capabilities, Wheeler has no qualms.

She will prove her worth on the court, she said.

“That’s fine because I’m going to always do me at the end of the day, and we’re going to play well as a team,” Wheeler said. “I’m not worried about that.”

The junior guard has even fewer worries about her role this season.

Wheeler recorded 20 double-digit scoring games in her first two seasons under Stringer, and judging by her fast start last season could see another Sunday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

But whether Wheeler starts or enters off the bench or drops 20 points or none, it will not change her game.

No matter what, she will always do her best to prove any doubters wrong.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder whether [the recruiting class] is good or not,” Wheeler said. “I always have that in my mentality.”

By Anthony Hernandez

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