The young team is ready for a fresh start
There’s no sugarcoating it: The growing pains of the 2018 season were tough. The league-worst 6-28 campaign marked the second consecutive season of missing the playoffs. But there is a renewed spirit and optimism for a franchise that still holds the WNBA record for consecutive playoff appearances with 12.
Second-year guard Kelsey Mitchell is here for it. “The one thing you should know about us is that we’re going to get it right,” the number two pick from the 2018 WNBA draft told High Post Hoops. “We’re not going to be perfect, but we’re going to get it right.”
For Fever fans, there are plenty of positives. What is the franchise excited about? What challenges are ahead? Let’s take a look at a team looking to overcome hurdles both old and new. Here’s what to keep your eyes on as the season launches this month.
The top trio of scorers return for 2019
The team returns its top three scorers from a year ago in forwards Candice Dupree (14.2 ppg) and Natalie Achonwa (10.3 ppg), and guard Mitchell (12.7 ppg). Dupree’s consistency anchors a line-up that once again will blend newcomers into the mix. The durable veteran begins her 14th WNBA season after leading her EuroLeague team to a final four finish in the off-season.
Achonwa returns for her 5th season on court for the Fever and looks to add to a breakout year in 2018. The now-veteran leader continues to add elements to her game. Look for the Notre Dame product to expand her shooting range with more time expected at the four position.
Point guard Erica Wheeler also returns to the line-up after re-signing with the team this winter. She led the team in assists with 4.1 a game a year ago.
The return of Shenise Johnson
Fever fans can look forward to the return of combo guard, Shenise Johnson. She helped the team reach the WNBA Finals in 2015 and is a threat to shoot it from beyond the arc. An ACL injury suffered in July of the 2017 season sidelined her for all of 2018.
Johnson brings some backcourt experience to a team that often featured first-year guards in regular rotation last season. A return to form for the veteran will be a big addition to the young squad.
Newcomer Teaira McCowan is a game changer
The third overall pick in the 2019 draft, McCowan will make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor. She finished her final NCAA season averaging double-figures in both rebounding and scoring.
The two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year will be expected to defend the paint and provide added size for a team that had difficulty matching up on the boards against bigger teams last season. Head Coach Pokey Chatman: “The main thing for us is that we have not had a big post presence and rim protection.” McCowan changes that.
Can she make an impact on the offensive end as well? Chatman seems to think so: “I think she’ll improve us on the defensive end of the floor first,” said the nine-year veteran WNBA mentor. “And then once we get comfortable playing with her, and having her post where she can be effective, I think that’s going to come along as well.”
Improved shot contests and rebounding should help fuel Chatman’s fast-paced offensive style with better transition scoring opportunities for a team that struggled to put up points a season ago. A Fever team with an improved transition game is one to watch.
The loss of Victoria Vivians is a hurdle
The reunion of college teammates McCowan and Vivians will have to wait. The two teamed up to help Mississippi State to consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances in 2017 and 2018. But Vivians will miss the 2019 season after suffering an ACL injury in March during overseas action in Israel. In her rookie season, she established herself on both ends of the floor and played more than 27 minutes a game with 26 starts.
The loss of her versatility will have impact according to her head coach. “She can stroke it from deep. She is a strong defender,” said Chatman. “I think it’s one of those things that it’ll be by committee in terms of how you replace what she brought to the table.”
The Fever may miss her most in their half-court offense where her presence created spacing for post play and attacking drives. Vivians led the Fever in three-point shooting percentage, converting 65-163 for 39.9%. The next best shooter on the team is Mitchell who knocked down a team-high 70 three-pointers at 33.5% last season.
Who seizes that opportunity to be an additional perimeter threat? The team will need to answer that question moving forward. An improved three-point percentage from Mitchell could go a long way.
Kelsey Mitchell on the rise
The dynamic playmaker assumed a big role in her rookie season, earning over 24 minutes a game with 17 starts. After a season learning the pro game, Mitchell has emerged with a new mindset for the season ahead – and that should provide Fever fans with plenty of excitement.
Mitchell sees her daily preparation as a key to her growth. “My approach is definitely different. I think it starts with the mental for me. Last year, I felt weight on my shoulders and I felt flustered,” said the former Ohio State star. “I am going into my second year trying to be as confident as possible.”
She was named to the All-Rookie Team last season and now has a season of experience playing abroad in Turkey. “So with the year that I had overseas under my belt, it’s kind of pushing me towards being a more mature player,” said Mitchell with confidence.
Her coach agrees: “You know, I feel her confidence. I feel her evolving, understanding the nuances of the game,” said Chatman. “She still gets her buckets but she’s also creating great opportunities for everyone else.”
Mitchell arrived at Fever camp lighter, quicker, and in better shape. Her maturation is a great sign for the team. Look for a strong performance from her this season.
New leadership setting the pace
In March, the Indiana Fever introduced a new President and COO in Allison Barber. They also promoted Fever legend Tamika Catchings as their VP of Basketball Operations. Catchings spent her entire 16-year playing career with the Fever, leading them to a championship in 2012.
“We’re focusing on what we can do in this moment to be better,” said Achonwa of the new leadership’s emphasis. “On the court, off the court, and just how we carry ourselves. You can feel it and you can see it. So look out for a whole different vibe from the Fever this year.”
Despite the loss of Vivians, the Fever will be an intriguing team to watch. McCowan’s adjustment to the pro game will be a key, but her presence in the paint alone will give the team added defensive and rebounding proficiency.
There are key questions moving forward: Will Mitchell establish consistency in her second season? Can they find more perimeter scoring? How much will the return of Shenise Johnson impact the team?
Indiana fans can expect improvement. They may not be ready to return to that top tier of the league this season, but if learning to win is a process, they are right in the thick of it. “I think with the people, the energy, the youth—and the skills that they have—we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” said Chatman.
The Fever open the season on the road against the New York Liberty on May 24.
Love our 24/7 women’s basketball coverage? Join our Patreon now and support this work, while getting extra goodies and subscriber-only content for yourself.