Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

Francesca Pan and Kierra Fletcher are an odd pair. Pan is a junior, Fletcher a sophomore. Pan hails from Bassano del Grappa, Italy, a town renowned for its medieval architecture. Fletcher comes from Warren, Mi., a Detroit suburb hit as hard as any by the Great Recession. Even on the court, their games are dissimilar; Pan led the team in three-point attempts last season and Fletcher did not make a single shot from beyond the arc.

But entering the 2018-19 women’s basketball season, Pan and Fletcher, the only two Tech players to start every game last season, are likely its strongest leaders. 

Pan burst onto the scene during the 2016-17 campaign, starting 35 games, good for second-most on the team. For a freshman dropped into the crucible that is the Atlantic Coast Conference, that in itself is impressive. Logging 926 minutes of time on the court, seconds behind then-junior point guard Imani Tilford, Pan scored 11.5 points per game on 36.7 percent shooting. But that number was lowered by the high number of three-point shots Pan took; to account for that, the best approach is to instead look at a player’s effective field goal percentage. This calculation, which weighs a three-point shot as the equivalent of making 1.5 two-point shots, puts Pan at an improved percentage of 44.17 percent — that is, Pan’s efficiency should be considered equivalent to that of a player who takes exclusively two-point shots and makes them at a 44.17 percent clip. For reference, NBA rookie Dennis Smith, Jr. scored at a nearly identical 44.6 percent effective field goal percentage, and his performance was good enough to garner Second-Team All-Rookie honors.

Likewise, the accolades rolled in for Pan in her rookie campaign. She was named the conference’s Rookie of the Week five times, made the All-Freshman and All-Academic teams, and finished the season as the ACC Freshman of the Year. But the next season, as defenses focused more on her, Pan suffered a bit. 

Pan’s volume improved year over year — she led the team in the 2017-18 campaign with 14.3 points per game, 4.2 better than the second-leading player, senior Zaire O’Neil — but her efficiency dropped. She shot a paltry 32.7 percent from the field, or a 43.93 effective field goal percentage. While that seems like a smaller dip than her overall field goal percentage, what it in essence says is that Pan became potentially overdependent on her three-point shot. When that did not fall, the team was in trouble. 

Nonetheless, Pan has demonstrated the deft scoring touch over her first two seasons that makes her a viable star on a conference contending team. Largely responsible for getting her the ball will be Fletcher. Fletcher, who was rated as a five-star prospect by ESPN’s HoopGurlz coming out of Cousino High School, did not achieve the eye-popping numbers that Pan managed as a freshman but was nonetheless impressive.

Fletcher led the team with 2.3 assists per game playing point guard and logged 26.5 minutes per game, second only to Pan. She has a long way to go from the free throw stripe — she connected on a mere 59.8 percent of attempts from the line — but was remarkably active on the boards for a player of her size; her 5.2 rebounds per game were good for third on the team.

The problem neither Pan nor Fletcher will be able to resolve on their own is the loss of frontcourt players Elo Edeferioka and Zaire O’Neil to graduation. O’Neil, in particular, was a dominant presence inside. Agreeing to play off the bench her senior year paid dividends  both for O’Neil and the team; she dominated second units with fresh legs and was named ACC Sixth Player of the Year in recognition of her contributions. Freshman forward and five-star prospect Liz Dixon may be one of the keys to overcoming that disadvantage — her 6’5” frame makes her the tallest player on the team — but nonetheless, the team will need steady leadership to integrate young players. Neither Dixon nor fellow freshmen Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, D’Asia Gregg or Elizabeth Balogun can be expected to immediately step in and play at the level necessary to consistently win games in the ACC, regardless of pedigree. That is simply too much to ask of players largely accustomed to dominating high school circuits every year.

But that is where Pan and Fletcher will be valuable — Pan has spent two years in MaChelle Joseph’s system and Fletcher is going into her second. They will have the important responsibility of not only exemplifying excellence on the court but serving as steadying presences throughout the year. Their experience and the quality of the incoming freshman class suggests that they will be able to do that, both this season and next.