Veteran guard Briann January ready to step up as Fever's leader

Since getting drafted by Indiana in 2009, Briann January has started 166 games and averaged 8.9 points per game. Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire

It was the kind of play that Briann January made ... well, because that's how she always plays. That it happened at the end of a potential elimination game the year her Indiana Fever won the WNBA title makes the play especially memorable. But it's the kind of thing January just does all the time.

"You can always feel her presence on both sides of the floor," said coach Pokey Chatman, who takes over the Fever this season after six years with Chicago. "She's a point guard, but just as vocal on the defensive end. She's your quarterback on offense, your safety on defense. And she's so aggressive, heck, she could be a linebacker, too.

"That's the person who is going to infuse energy in the rest of the team, and she's one of the best at it. It's just natural for her, how she lives her life."

Life will be different, though, for January and the Fever this season. They knew well in advance that Tamika Catchings would retire after the 2016 season, so there was time to prepare. But it's real now. Although, Catchings has hardly disappeared.

"She was in practice today," January said Tuesday, chuckling. "We knew she couldn't stay away."

Catchings has a new role with the Pacers/Fever organization, announced earlier this month. She's the director of player programs and franchise development, and will be working with the NBA, WNBA and developmental league teams (the latter the fabulously named the Fort Wayne Mad Ants).

It's a perfect role for Catchings, keeping her in close touch with the Fever -- a team with which she has been synonymous -- and fulfilling her long-stated dream of being involved with the NBA, too.

Still, it means a heavier leadership role for January, who now has the longest active tenure with the Fever as she enters her ninth season in Indianapolis. But nobody's more open to greater responsibility than January, who is embracing that on two fronts. She also has a new job: January will be an assistant coach for her alma mater, Arizona State.

Like Catchings' new position, this seems a great fit for January. Her mentor, Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne, has encouraged January to keep playing in the WNBA as long as she wants. January will join the ASU staff full time when this WNBA season ends, and then she will continue to evaluate her playing career on a year-by-year basis, depending on how she feels physically.

"She's already everywhere at our facility," Turner Thorne said, referring to the mural and photos of January at ASU's Wells Fargo Arena, where she played from 2005-09. "Because I wanted her to be everywhere; she represents everything good about our program and about basketball.

"She's a selfless hard worker who cares about other people, first and foremost. She just lights up a room. And for today's young players, she's that connection point of somebody who does what they aspire to do."

"That's the person who is going to infuse energy in the rest of the team, and she's one of the best at it. It's just natural for her, how she lives her life." Fever coach Pokey Chatman on Briann January

Turner Thorne, in fact, remembers "the play" mentioned earlier, and has shown it to her players. It was in the second game of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, with the Fever facing elimination against Connecticut. The score was tied 76-76, and Catchings grabbed a missed Sun free throw, then threw a long pass to January, who had a breakaway layup. The ball rimmed out, though, with 5.9 seconds left.

Many players -- even for a critical split second -- might have gotten caught up in the missed shot. January, though, instantly chased after the ball, diving into the Connecticut bench to save it back to teammate Shavonte Zellous -- who then hit the jump shot that won it, 78-76.

It's always tricky to put too much on one moment in one game in one season in one career. But January's hustling play deserves the hyperbole. The Fever won Game 3 at Connecticut, then knocked off defending champion Minnesota in the WNBA Finals. And some gnawing uncertainty about ownership support that had swirled around the Fever at the start of that season seemed put to rest.

It meant Catchings -- one of the most universally loved players ever in women's hoops -- had her WNBA title. And every coach had a great clip to show about the importance of never giving up on a play.

"Well, I would have liked to have made the layup," January said, laughing. "But I actually did get quite a few messages from coaches from all over who said they played that clip for their team. And that made me happy because a lot of basketball isn't just about how 'good' you are.

"There are good shooters everywhere, good passers, good rebounders. But it's the little things that separate a good team from a great team. It's that extra effort that a lot of people may not always be willing to give. If seeing something like that helps a kid realize that, then that makes my day."

Working with younger players, which January has done before, convinced her that coaching was what she wanted to transition into at some point. But she still has some playing to do.

With a new coach in Chatman -- she took over for Stephanie White, who went to Vanderbilt -- we will see a few differences in how the Fever do some things. But the effort, which the franchise has always been known for thanks to the standard Catchings set, won't change.

"[Chatman] has her philosophy and vision, and it's been received by everyone because she knows the game so well," January said. "She has this passion for the game that everybody feeds off."

January also hastens to point out she has lots of leadership around her. Returning Fever players such as Erlana Larkins, Marissa Coleman and Shenise Johnson, plus 11-year veteran Candice Dupree, are all of that same mindset. The Fever obtained Dupree from Phoenix in a trade that also involved Connecticut, and she, too, has WNBA championship experience, winning the 2014 title with the Mercury.

Indiana, which starts the 2017 regular season May 14 in Seattle, has the longest playoff streak of any WNBA team, making the postseason the past 12 years. And January, who has averaged 8.9 points and 3.6 assists in her WNBA career, doesn't know what it's like to miss the playoffs, except for when she was out due to an ACL injury in 2011. She has played in the WNBA Finals three times: as rookie in 2009, in 2012 and in 2015.

"I don't really spend a lot of time reflecting back, but it is pretty amazing," January said. "A lot of our fans, I know, were a little stressed out at the beginning of multiple years where we didn't start off so hot. But we always continue to get better.

"I give the credit to the leadership we've had on this team and trusting the process. There are things that are staples for the Fever, and we've stayed true to them. And I've been lucky with the teammates I've had, because they've all bought in."