Season Review: The Indiana Fever improved dramatically in 2019, but the best is yet to come

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The Indiana Fever finished the 2019 season at 13-21, a seven win improvement over their 2018 record. That improvement wasn’t enough to save the job of head coach Pokey Chatman, though, as the Fever moved on from her after three seasons.

The search for a head coach who can help this young team take the next leap forward will define this offseason for the Fever. They’ve got one of the league’s best future building blocks in center Teaira McCowan, plus potentially young players in Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians, who missed all of the 2019 season with a knee injury. They’ll add another top pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, making this an appealing job for some coach. And there’s also All-Star Game MVP Erica Wheeler!

What Went Wrong In 2019?

I’m not sure phrasing the question that way is great, because a lot actually went right. Indiana was picked by a lot of people to be the league’s worst team, but they looked competitive for most of the season. Aside from McCowan — I’ll get to her — the team got strong production from veterans Candice Dupree and Erica Wheeler.

The first thing that went wrong wasn’t even technically something that went wrong with the team. It was the Vivians knee injury, which was suffered while playing overseas in Israel. Vivians was one of my picks to be a break out player this season after a rookie year where she shot 40.4% from the field, including a 39.9% mark from deep on 4.8 threes per game. Indiana took the second-fewest threes per game this year, so having Vivians in the lineup would have allowed the team to spend a little more time shooting from behind the arc, which could have helped with creating more space for McCowan or the team’s other center, Natalie Achonwa. That increased spacing would have helped with the team’s offensive efficiency, as they had the league’s fourth-worst true shooting percentage. (Is it a coincidence that the four worst true shooting percentages belonged to the four non-playoff teams? Hmm.)

Another thing that went wrong was that Kelsey Mitchell didn’t quite take the leap that some were expecting. In terms of scoring efficiency, sure — Mitchell jumped from a true shooting percentage of 47.7% to 50.6%. Her individual net rating looked a lot better too, going from -14.8 to -1.3. But she stayed around the same minutes per game and didn’t take a step forward as a passer. It wasn’t a bad year for Mitchell. She was in the 89th percentile in points per possession when spotting up, which is looking more and more like the role you want her to have. Indiana just doesn’t quite have the personnel yet to allow her to do that. Sure would be great for them if they could win the Draft Lottery and select Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, an excellent ball-handler who could allow Mitchell to spend even more time off the ball while also easing up defensive pressure when she does bring the ball up the floor.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’ll cover that whole thing soon.

What Went Right In 2019?

McCowan aside — I’m going to go deeper on her later in this piece — the 2019 Fever saw a lot of things go their way.

Let’s start with Erica Wheeler.

Wheeler averaged 10.1 points and five assists per game this year, shooting 38.4% from three. She became the first undrafted player to win the All-Star Game MVP, and the huge strides she made as a shooter made her the most dangerous non-big on this Fever team. Wheeler continues to improve as a ball-handler, which is great for the Fever, who need ball-handlers and strong perimeter play to open the floor up for McCowan and, most importantly, to get the ball to McCowan.

Betnijah Laney had saw a huge jump in minutes this year and while it wasn’t always the smoothest transition into a bigger role, she showed a lot of promise.

Natalie Achonwa saw her minutes fall off as the year went on because of McCowan, but she remains a very solid player and if the Fever use her exclusively as a backup center next year, she’ll possibly be the league’s best backup center.

The Most Impressive About The Fever Was:

Teaira McCowan. Definitely, 100%, Teaira McCowan.

Count me among the many people who thought McCowan would need a couple of seasons to be a force in the WNBA. I’ve become increasingly convinced that centers whose games are exclusively restricted to the paint can’t thrive in a league that’s increasingly trending towards the best teams being as versatile as possible — see last year’s Storm and this year’s Mystics — but McCowan might have proven me wrong.

Head coach Pokey Chatman seemed to be constantly playing some kind of roulette game when it came to deciding minutes between McCowan and veteran center Natalie Achonwa (even though, as I wrote back in July, the team should have just played both together more), which led to McCowan starting just 16 of the team’s 34 games.

But over the final 10 games of the season, we really got to see what McCowan can do. She finished with 10 or more points in nine of those games and had double-digit rebounds in six of them. This was all highlighted by back-to-back BIG games for the rookie, as she had 22 points and 19 boards against Seattle before following that up with 24 and 17 against the Aces. She had 20 or points four times in a five game span, showing Fever fans why she projects to be just an absolute beast on the interior. Over those final 10 games, McCowan led the WNBA in shots made per game in the restricted area.

2020 Draft Prospects

It’s hard to get a read on what Indiana might do with the third overall pick. If Chennedy Carter comes out early, Indiana could grab another point guard there. Otherwise, the top players right now — Lauren Cox and Beatrice Mompremier — are more bigs. There’s a place for those players beside McCowan in the Fever lineup, but it won’t be as easy as just plugging in a point guard.

2020 Outlook

It’s early, but adding another strong rookie plus getting Vivians back and having a full year of Teaira McCowan at center should put the Fever right in the thick of the playoff battle. We’ll see if the team does anything in free agency or not and how the league shapes up, but I’d cautiously call them contenders for a seventh or eighth seed?

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