Never in the 24-year history of Indiana Fever basketball has the franchise drawn the top pick in the WNBA Draft. That all changed Friday night on ESPN. With current guard Kelsey Mitchell as their representative, the proverbial ping-pong ball dropped in favor of the Fever.
Indiana’s odds ahead of the lottery were at 44.2%. The franchise earned a cumulative 11-57 record in the last two seasons, making them the only team with odds better than 30% ahead of Friday’s lottery.
The Fever has appeared in the WNBA Draft Lottery for the eighth time in the 24-year existence of the franchise. Last year, Indiana selected NaLyssa Smith second overall and Emily Engstler fourth overall.
Any team in the Draft Lottery has struggled to earn wins in the WNBA; that is a given. However, has Indiana done enough to iron out other kinks in the organization?
Three former top-four picks – Lauren Cox (3rd in 2020), Teaira McCowan (3rd in 2019), and Kysre Gondrezick (4th in 2021) – are no longer with the franchise. Further, Cox and McCowan did not play in the WNBA last season. It’s less than ideal for a team with a top-four pick in the previous five drafts to lose that talent.
The team announced Christine Sides as their new head coach on November 10. Sides is the ninth head coach in Franchise history and the fourth since Pokey Chatman was let go in September 2019. Additionally, former head coach Lin Dunn – who brought the Fever their only WNBA title in 2012 – is acting as the interim general manager.
“We will reestablish this franchise as a team that wins on the court and in the community,” Dunn said during Sides’ introductory press conference. “She and I share the same values, and I know these values will have an immediate impact on this team,” Dunn said.
The first value mentioned was defense. The Fever had the worst defensive ranking last season (108.9) and an assist-to-turnover ratio above one. In addition, the team was at the bottom of the league in several other categories en route to a 5-31 record last season.
Dunn and Sides know there is a lot of work ahead, and the process will take time. For Dunn, part of that process was naming a coach who could be a draw to free agents. Sides is a long-time assistant coach in the league and has the respect of her former players. Establishing a defense-first approach is another recruitment tactic. First, it creates a clear expectation and direction for the franchise. Secondly, hard-working players with a team-first attitude are likely to thrive in Sides’ system.
And then, of course, there is building through the draft. Indiana is already a young team and will likely be so again next season. Indiana has the first and seventh picks for 2023. South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston is believed to be the first overall pick in the upcoming 2023 Draft. Stanford guard Hayley Jones is also projected by most experts to be a top-two pick.
Fever center/forward Queen Egbo averaged 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game en route to All-Rookie Team honors. Boston would likely have good defense in the post and scoring depth, should Indiana select her.
With the number one pick and a deep draft, it’s hard to imagine Indiana will trade away the top pick. Winning a championship is rarely possible without a number one pick if Sue Bird has anything to say about it.
“You gotta get the number one pick,” Bird said in a press conference after her final regular season game with the Seattle Storm on September 7. The Seattle Storm selected Bird first overall in the 2002 WNBA Draft, where she combined forces with the WNBA superstar Lauren Jackson. The duo brought the Storm their first WNBA title in 2004. By 2010, Bird’s UConn teammate – and future Hall of Fame inductee – Swin Cash joined the bunch and won Seattle its second title.
Bird was a number one pick and has spoken multiple times that Breanna Stewart revived her faith in the Storm’s ability to win after four consecutive seasons of a sub-.500 winning percentage. Two-time WNBA MVP Stewart and 2015 first-overall pick Jewell Loyd helped Bird win her final two WNBA titles (2018 & 2020) before her retirement this season.
“I can name maybe two teams that have ever had success going to the Finals, winning a championship, that don’t have a number one pick on them or don’t have, you know, multiple top three picks,” Bird said.
As it turns out, the 2012 Indiana Fever is one of those teams. Lin Dunn coached the Fever to a WNBA title with two top-three picks in Jessica Davenport (2nd overall in 2007) and Tamika Catching (3rd overall in 2001). Even if Dunn could repeat the magic of 2012 as an interim general manager, she might not have to.
There are epic, Hall of Fame-bound players like Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Courtney Vandersloot, and Stewart available in the free agent market. Whether they chose to test the market or remain with their current clubs is to be determined.
Further, has Indiana done enough to entice free agents to sign with the team? What will Dunn, Sides, and the Fever front office decide to do to steer Indiana out of the bottom of the standings in 2023 and beyond?
Unfortunately, we cannot definitively answer any of these questions in November. Teams may begin reaching out to free agents on January 15. The WNBA Draft will follow shortly after the 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion is crowned in Dallas. Only then will see begin to unfold the Fever’s plans.