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.”
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.”
make way for @NaLyssaSmith 😤 pic.twitter.com/j1tbl4xT6D— Indiana Fever ⛹️♀️🏀 (@IndianaFever) April 30, 2022
make way for @NaLyssaSmith 😤 pic.twitter.com/j1tbl4xT6D
“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.”
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.