Just four months ago, it looked like the Indiana Fever were stuck. In previous years, Indiana doled out huge contracts to aging role players, failed to develop its draft picks, and sparked little excitement from fans with its front office and coaching staff.
But in the short time since that dismal point in franchise history, the organization has worked feverishly to deliver Indiana from purgatory.
A Fortuitous Changing of the Guard
Although her time as general manager won’t be held in high regard, franchise GOAT Tamika Catchings did end her Fever managing career on a high note. Before leaving her position, Catchings helped the Fever organization get in on the Diamond DeShields trade to the Phoenix Mercury, which involved Indiana securing two first-round picks and two second-round picks,taking on the contract of Bria Hartley, and moving Julie Allemand. The Fever later used one of the 2022 picks they received to send Teaira McCowan to Dallas. They then utilized the No. 20 pick they received to take draft steal Destanni Henderson.
Before stepping down, Catchings also made sure to take fliers on younger players around the league, adding Jazmine Jones off waivers (who was later waived by Indiana as well), signing Alaina Coates, and re-signing Victoria Vivians.
The Fever’s road to improvement picked up the pace with the appointment of the head coach for Indiana’s 2012 title run, Lin Dunn, to the general manager position. The franchise icon immediately promised and initiated change for the better.
“I do think there’s been a little bit of lack of real identity,” Dunn told ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel in February. “Like, who are we and how do we want to play on both ends of the floor? I can tell you this, we will defend. There’s not any doubt about that.”
Everyone knows about Dunn’s propensity for defense—her teams finished each season of her seven-year Fever head-coaching tenure with a top-three rating in either opponent points per game or defensive rating. With her wealth of defensive wisdom, Dunn set out to improve a team that posted a franchise-worst defensive rating in 2020 and a third-worst in Fever history in 2021.
Dunn continued Catchings’ moves around the edges before pulling the trigger on the aforementioned McCowan trade to the Dallas Wings. While the move drew some questions at the time, Dunn’s fantastic 2022 draft class proved that McCowan had no place in the new-look Fever’s frontcourt. In the McCowan trade, Indiana was able to swap the seventh pick in this year’s draft for the sixth (Lexie Hull was later selected), obtain the fourth pick in the 2022 draft, and move the Chicago Sky’s 2023 pick that the Fever acquired in the Hartley trade to add Dallas’ first-rounder next year.
The good times kept rolling for the Fever, who then found themselves with four top-10 picks in the 2022 class. With its newfound hoard of picks, Indiana added NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Hull, Queen Egbo, and Henderson.
Indiana’s latest moves were on the coaching front, starting with former head coach Marianne Stanley stepping down from her position and handing the reins to Carlos Knox. In Knox’s first game as head coach, the Fever put up a season-high 101 points in a victory over the Los Angeles Sparks. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, the Fever hired Gary Kloppenburg, a former Fever assistant and a WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm in 2018 and 2020.
How the Fever’s Moves Are Carrying Over to the Court
While Indiana’s defense hasn’t wholly improved thus far this season, Dunn’s moves are already paying dividends on the court. Per Basketball Reference, Indiana ranks sixth in blocks per game, fourth in three-point percentage, and first in field goal attempts per game. Last season, Indiana ranked in the bottom four in steals and blocks, dead last in three-point percentage, and seventh in field goal attempts. The Fever also currently rank second in the league with 82.74 possessions per 40 minutes. Those stats illustrate Indiana’s turnaround from a sluggish, boring team to a high-octane, entertaining one.
Much of Indiana’s improvement is due to the play of the Fever’s five rookies. While Hull hasn’t broken into the rotation yet, the other four have and are playing above and beyond expectations. Smith was an expected starter as the second overall pick, but Engstler, Egbo, and Henderson have notably combined for 18 starts through 12 games and are playing 62.2 minutes per game.
Egbo accounts for 11 of those starts and has been a pleasant surprise on the defensive end of the court, averaging 1.3 SPG and 1.5 BPG to go along with 7.0 PPG and 7.3 RPG.
A fan favorite, Henderson has been nothing short of fantastic for Indiana, registering the second-highest three-point percentage in the league at 54.2 percent. All indications point toward Henderson becoming the point guard of the future, which is a role she’s slowly being eased into as she shares playing time with Danielle Robinson. Despite playing just the seventh-most minutes on the roster, Henderson accounts for the second-most win shares on the team behind Kelsey Mitchell.
Engstler may be the most unsung rookie, but nevertheless, her presence has been an anchor for an improving defense. Leading the team in offensive boards per game (3.0) and coming in second on the team in BPG (1.4), Engstler has been one of the team’s best bench players and will likely continue to earn more minutes as the season rolls on.
Even though Smith was the second overall pick, she’s also been providing some pleasant surprises through the first 12 games of the season. One of the more unexpected developments in Smith’s game is her three-point shooting prowess thus far, connecting at a 39.1 percent clip on 23 total attempts. Smith showed a knack for hitting mid-range shots at Baylor, and it’s great for the Fever that she is expanding her range at such a high clip this early into her career.
It Isn’t Just the Rookies
Infusing a roster with young talent does more than energize a fan base: It also energizes the veterans already in place. Exhibit A is the stellar play of Kelsey Mitchell, who is fresh off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Mitchell is having a truly outstanding season, ranking second in the league in scoring with 19.4 PPG (trailing only Breanna Stewart). Mitchell, who is now entering her prime years, is averaging career highs in PPG and APG while shooting 41.8 percent from downtown.
Victoria Vivians is also having a career year, posting a career high with 12.3 PPG and shooting 36.1 percent from distance on just above 5.0 attempts per game. After experiencing numerous setbacks, it looks like the idealized version of Vivians is here: a pure shooter. Further, Vivians has taken strides as a playmaker, which is good to see despite this leading to a higher output of turnovers.
For a team that was incapable of generating offense last season, it is a huge benefit to have a spot-up shooter like Vivians as well as a creator in Kelsey Mitchell.
Where To Go From Here
This season is all about continuing the development of Indiana’s young pieces and establishing a competitive culture that can last the course of multiple seasons. With two first-round picks in a stacked 2023 draft class, the Fever can afford to be patient with the 3-9 record they currently boast, especially considering Indiana didn’t win its third game last season until July 9. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the closer games, exciting young core, and competitive nature of this team.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA.com.