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A new era: Indiana Fever turn the page with loaded rookie draft class

L-R: NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, Lexie Hull, Emily Engstler and Destanni Henderson (front) pose for a photoshoot during the Fever’s media day. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: To close out the year, we are recognizing our best stories of 2022. This is the third in that series, originally published on May 4. The other stories feature the NWSL’s journey to a historic CBA and Naomi Girma’s rise to stardom.

There was a different kind of energy in Gainbridge Fieldhouse during the Indiana Fever’s media day last Wednesday. The atmosphere was relaxed, and loud music, laughter and the sweet anticipation of things to come filled the air.

The WNBA season tips off this Friday, and with it, the Fever embark on a new rebuilding phase in the franchise’s 22-year history. Indiana finished last season with the worst record in the league, winning only six games. After making the playoffs every year from 2005-16, the Fever haven’t had a winning season since 2015 and have missed the last five postseasons, the longest active drought in the WNBA.

This season, the Fever are counting on their youth to help turn the franchise around. With four selections in the first round of the WNBA Draft, the most a team has ever made, Indiana infused its roster with elite college-level talent: NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull and Queen Egbo. They then scooped up the star of the NCAA championship game, South Carolina point guard Destanni Henderson, in the second round.

“We’re all a group of talented, young women,” Egbo says. “We bring a lot to the game and we know what we’re capable of doing.”

“I’m not even gonna lie, [we] just want to do better than they did last year” adds Egbo’s former Baylor teammate, NaLyssa Smith. “I mean, we have a great group of people that can help get a lot further than they did last year and potentially make a playoff run.”

***

When Lin Dunn first returned to the Fever in mid-February to take over as interim general manager after Tamika Catchings stepped down, she didn’t realize how different the role would be from coaching.

“It’s challenging,” she says. “I think I said this when I took the job — I wouldn’t have done this anywhere else. I have a longtime relationship with the Fever, Pacers Sports and Entertainment, and the connections I have with those people. So when they asked me to help, there was no way I could say no. But now I’m finding the role very challenging, very interesting.”

Dunn, a 50-year coaching veteran who won a WNBA championship during her prior tenure with the Fever from 2004-14, was all in on the opportunity to rebuild the franchise. She made initial changes during free agency, waiving Kysre Gondrezick (the fourth overall pick in 2020) and trading Teaira McCown (third overall in 2019) to the Dallas Wings. Then, Dunn got to work on preparing for the draft. For two months, she focused on the best players available and didn’t get too caught up on position — though it was obvious Indiana needed immediate frontcourt help.

“Of course, we were all over researching Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith, because we agreed with the media that those were the two best picks in the draft,” Dunn says. “We spent time on them because we knew we were going to get one of them.”

As expected, once the Atlanta Dream took Howard with the first pick in the draft, Indiana scooped up Smith with the second.

“I was excited to get drafted to the Fever,” Smith says. “Just because I knew it was a franchise that needed people that could help them. And I knew I could come to this [team] and help it.”

After Smith, Indiana — thanks to multiple offseason trades — had three more first-round draft picks at its disposal. They discussed the next best available players at four and at six, and then looked to fill other holes on the roster as the draft went on. Engstler, the Louisville standout forward who does a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor, was the next pick at four. Then came Stanford’s sharpshooter, Hull, at six. And when media pundits and analysts opined that the pick may have been a reach, Dunn guffawed.

Right after she made the selection, she says, her phone buzzed with a text from another team asking what she wanted for Hull. If the Fever hadn’t grabbed Hull at six, Dunn believes she would have been off the board by the time they picked again at 10.

“So, obviously I made the right decision or we would have lost her,” Dunn says. “I don’t really care what the pundits or the media think. I care about what I think we need, and Lexie is exactly what we needed.”

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Smith and Egbo have reunited on the Fever after playing all four years together at Baylor. (PSE/Matt Kryger)

Egbo (10th pick) and Henderson (20th pick) rounded out the Fever’s first- and second-round class. Dunn walked away from draft night more than content with the results, emphasizing that the Fever not only got the players they wanted, but also the players who can come in and make an immediate impact.

“If you’ve done any research on our roster, these people are gonna play,” Dunn says. “It’s not like some of the other teams that are drafting people to play backup roles or limited minute roles. We drafted people to play. And so, even though we were the last-place team, if I was a prospect, I’d want to go to Indiana because I want to play.”

***

After commissioner Cathy Engelbert called Engstler’s name for Indiana, Smith sent her a text right away. And as Engstler made her way through the media gauntlet on the draft floor in New York City, she kept a close eye on the stage.

“I saw Lexie get drafted and I was like, ‘Oh snap!’ Like, Stanford, Baylor, Louisville, South Carolina. These are the top, top players you can get,” Engstler says, beaming. “I had just played against Destanni, and she was killing it in the tournament. [I’m] super excited to get a chance to play with her. I knew Queen and ‘Lyss, so I was excited to get to see Queen again. So, old friendships, making new friends, and just great people.”

The rigors of a WNBA training camp are challenging, especially for rookies. The women’s college basketball season is long, and for teams that make it far into the NCAA Tournament, it’s even longer. For players like Engstler, Hull and Henderson, whose teams competed in the Final Four in Minneapolis, they had just over a week to transition from March Madness, to the draft and to a whole new city with a fresh set of teammates. That’s why, for this group, entering the next phase of their basketball careers together is unique.

“I don’t think a lot of players get that opportunity, to really get drafted with a bunch of other draftees and kind of restart with such a young group,” Engstler says. “People might think that’s an issue, but I think that’s going to set us apart from a lot of teams. We’re gonna be fast, eager to learn and be educated, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve been doing since we’ve gotten here.”

That sentiment is shared among the whole draft class. Each rookie is not only excited to be in Indiana and to be a part of the rebuild, but they are also all relishing the opportunity to do it together.

“I feel like we all bring something different, but we all mesh together really well,” Egbo says.

“Lexie can shoot the s–t out of the ball. So can ‘Lyss. They’re amazing scorers. You have Emily who can do a little bit of everything. I take a lot of pride in defense and taking that defensive game to the floor. And Destanni’s just a true point guard. She looks to get other people open, she looks to make the right play and the right read, and she’s very selfless.”

“We can rely on each other coming from the collegiate level, and just all learning and growing at the same time,” adds Henderson. “Joining all of our styles of play together, being able to play a little bit freely, just making it happen on and off the court, whatever the case may be.”

The talent level of the Fever’s rookie class is off the charts. But chemistry is also an important part of any roster, and this core group seems to have plenty of it. As they prepare for their season opener against the Washington Mystics on Friday, the Fever have had very little downtime during the three-week preseason, but the rookies have tried to bring levity to the locker room and team meals.

“I love being around them,” Egbo says. “They always make me laugh. I could be sad, I could be mad, and once they come around, it’s just nothing but giggles. They’re all so funny. We just gel really well together.”

“It’s been awesome. We’ve hung out outside of basketball and everyone’s just great people, so it’s a great place to be, great people to be around and I’m excited for the next few months,” Hull adds.

The immediate goal for this group is to win more than six games. It’s something they all agree on, but they also don’t want to just stop there.

“All of the rookies and I were talking and we’ve never been on a losing team,” Hull says. “We want to win and win games — as many of those as we can, that’s our goal. And if we can make the playoffs, that’d be great.”

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Engstler, Henderson and Hull were drafted to the Indiana a week after playing in the Final Four with their college teams. (PSE/Matt Kryger)

There’s a lot of talk of surprising people, moving up in the standings, making the playoffs and even putting together a championship run. The latter might seem like a stretch for a young team with so many rookies, and no one expects it to happen overnight, least of all Dunn.

Between Dunn, 74, and head coach Marianne Stanley, in her 21st year coaching in the WNBA, the Fever are not focused on wins this season as much as they are on marked improvement in certain areas — notably hitting more 3s, increasing their 3-point percentage and playing better defense.

“What we’re gonna do, we’re gonna play these young players and we’re gonna let them play through their mistakes and we’re gonna let them grow up,” Dunn says. “Just like a child, they’re gonna crawl and walk and run. And hopefully by the end of the season, they will have continued to get better and realize what it takes to be a pro.”

Regardless of where Indiana ends up in the standings at the end of the season, the organization is confident in the foundation it’s building. After all, there’s never been a rookie draft class quite like this before.

“We’re just going to come in and make the best of it, showcase ourselves and show people the great things we can do,” Henderson says. “We can lean on each other when things get hard, ask questions and grow together.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

USWNT to face Costa Rica in final Olympic send-off

uswnt sophia smith and tierna davidson celebrate at shebeilves cup 2024
The USWNT will play their final pre-Olympic friendly against Costa Rica on July 16th. (Photo by Greg Bartram/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

U.S. Soccer announced Tuesday that the USWNT will play their last home game on July 16th in the lead-up to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The 2024 Send-Off Match against Costa Rica will take place at Washington, DC’s Audi Field — home to both the Washington Spirit and DC United — at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 16th. The friendly rounds out a four-game Olympic run-up campaign under incoming head coach Emma Hayes’ side, with the last two set to feature the finalized 2024 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team roster.

Hayes will appear on the USWNT sideline for the first time this June, helming the team as they embark on a two-game series against Korea Republic hosted by Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado on June 1st followed by Allianz Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 4th. 

The team is then scheduled to meet a talented Mexico squad on July 13th at Gotham FC’s Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, where the Olympic-bound lineup will attempt to rewrite February’s shocking 2-0 loss to El Tri Femenil in the group stages of this year’s Concacaf W Gold Cup. And while clear roster favorites have emerged from both of this year’s Gold Cup and SheBelives Cup rosters, a spate of recent and recurring injuries means making it to the Olympics is still largely anyone’s game.

Broadcast and streaming channels for the USWNT's final July 16th friendly at Audi Field include TNT, truTV, Universo, Max, and Peacock.

Caitlin Clark’s WNBA start to serve as 2024 Olympic tryout

Clark of the Indiana Fever poses for a photo with Lin Dunn and Christie Sides during her introductory press conference on April 17, 2024
The talented Fever rookie is still in the running for a ticket to this summer's Paris Olympics. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The USA Basketball Women's National Team is still considering Caitlin Clark for a spot on the Paris Olympics squad, says selection committee chair Jennifer Rizzotti. 

On Monday, Rizzotti told the AP that the committee will be evaluating the college phenom’s Olympic prospects by keeping a close eye on her first few weeks of WNBA play with Indiana.

The move is somewhat unconventional. While Clark was invited to participate in the 14-player national team training camp held earlier this month — the last camp before Team USA’s roster drops — she was unable to attend due to it coinciding with Iowa’s trip to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

Judging by the immense talent spread throughout the league in what might be their most hyped season to date, competition for a piece of the Olympic pie could be fiercer than ever before.

"You always want to introduce new players into the pool whether it's for now or the future," said Rizzotti. "We stick to our principles of talent, obviously, positional fit, loyalty and experience. It's got to be a combination of an entire body of work. It's still not going to be fair to some people."

Of course, Clark isn’t the first rookie the committee has made exceptions for. Coming off an exceptional college season that saw her averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for UConn, Breanna Stewart was tapped to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil less than two weeks after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Seattle Storm. Eight years prior, fellow No. 1 pick Candace Parker punched her ticket to the 2008 Games in Beijing just two weeks after making her first appearance for the L.A. Sparks.

In the lead-up to Paris’ Opening Ceremony on July 26th, USA Basketball Women’s National Team is scheduled to play a pair of exhibition games. They'll first go up against the WNBA's finest at the July 20th WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix before facing Germany in London on July 23rd.

While an official roster announcement date hasn’t yet been issued, players won’t find out if they’ve made this year’s Olympic cut until at least June 1st.

WNBA teams make history with 2024 season ticket sell-outs

Arike Ogunbowale on the wnba court for the dallas wings
The Dallas Wings are now the third team to sell out their entire season ticket allotment in WNBA history. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, three different WNBA teams have completely sold out of season ticket plans well before the league's May 14th kick-off.

Call it the Caitlin Clark effect, attribute it to this year’s tenacious rookie class, or look to the skyrocketing visibility of veteran players across the board. But no matter the cause, facts are facts: Tickets to the 2024 WNBA season are selling like never before. 

On Monday, the Dallas Wings became the third team to sell out of season ticket memberships in the league’s 27-year history. The announcement from Arlington came shortly after the Atlanta Dream issued their own season ticket sell-out statement, also on Monday, and almost seven weeks after the back-to-back WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces made headlines by becoming the first-ever WNBA team to sell out their season ticket allotment.   

According to the Wings, season ticket memberships will fill nearly 40% of the 6,251 seats inside their home arena, College Park Center. The club also said that their overall ticket revenue has ballooned to the tune of 220% this year, spanning not just season tickets but also a 1,200% increase in single ticket sales. There’s currently a waitlist to become a Dallas season ticket holder, a status that comes with extra incentives like playoff presale access and discounts on additional single-game tickets. 

In Atlanta, season tickets aren't the only thing flying off the shelves. The Dream also announced that they broke their own record for single-game ticket sales during a recent limited presale campaign. Sunday was reportedly their most lucrative day, with five different games totally selling out Gateway Center Arena. Individual tickets for all upcoming matchups will hit the market this Thursday at 8 a.m., while a waitlist for season ticket memberships will open up next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

"Excitement around women's sports, particularly basketball, is at an all-time high and nowhere is that felt more than here in Atlanta," Dream president and COO Morgan Shaw Parker said in the team’s statement. "We’ve continued a record-setting growth trajectory over the past three years under new ownership — both on and off the court — and 2024 is shaping up to be our best season yet."

As of Tuesday, season ticket sales revenue for Caitlin Clark’s hotly anticipated Indiana Fever debut haven’t yet been announced by the club. But if these numbers are any indication — not to mention the explosive demand for Fever away games felt by teams around the country — it won’t be long before we see some scale-tipping figures coming out of Indianapolis.

Nelly Korda ties LPGA record with fifth-straight tournament win

Nelly Korda of the United States celebrates with the trophy after winning The Chevron Championship
Nelly Korda poses with her trophy after acing her fifth-straight tour title at The Chevron Championship on Sunday. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

25-year-old American pro golfer Nelly Korda secured her spot in LPGA history on Sunday, notching her fifth-straight title at this weekend's Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.

Ranked No. 1 in the world by Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, Korda joins Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sörenstam (2005) as just the third LPGA player to rack up five consecutive tour wins. She is also the third No. 1-ranked player to capture The Chevron Championship victory since the rankings debuted in 2006, accompanied by Lorena Ochoa and Lydia Ko.

The Florida native shot three-under 69 in Sunday's final, besting Sweden's Maja Stark despite Stark's valiant come-from-behind attempt in the 18th. Korda finished with a four-day total of 13-under 275, celebrating her two-stroke win by cannonballing into Poppie's Pond, much to the crowd's delight. She left The Club at Carlton Woods with $1.2 million from an overall purse of $7.9 million.

It wasn't long ago that the two-time major champion's current winning streak seemed unimaginable. After maintaining her No. 1 position for 29 weeks, Korda underwent surgery to remove a blood clot from her left arm in 2022. She returned to the course not long after, but failed to win a single tournament in 2023 before seeing a surge in form during the first four months of 2024. As of today, she hasn't lost a tournament since January.

Korda will attempt a record sixth-straight win at next week's JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles, where she'll vie for a cut of the $3.75 million purse.

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