For the first time in franchise history, the Indiana Fever have won the WNBA draft lottery and possess the top overall selection. To say that this pick and the coming season are pivotal for the Fever as an organization would be a drastic undersell. Things have been tough in Indy, to say the least, since WNBA legend Tamika Catchings retired.
It’s poetic justice that Kelsey Mitchell, a beacon of positivity for the Fever in this recent era, was in ESPN’s Bristol studios to receive the selection and represent the team.
“I felt obligated to make sure I take on that responsibility on behalf of my team. For me, it was about a step in the right direction for leadership and to lead the team in the years to come. Getting that number one spot, it’s a step in the right direction of change…it adds to our resume to turn things around,” – Fever star, Kelsey Mitchell.
While the Fever endured a rough season, there were silver linings in the background.
NaLyssa Smith, the 2nd overall pick in the 2022 Draft, looks the part of a future star and scoring champ. Her blend of size, physicality, fluidity, and scoring touch is rare. Her shooting from outside the arc was further along than expected as the season wore on, finishing the season shooting 38.1% from deep, taking and making more threes in one season as a pro than she did in her entire four year Baylor career, and with greater efficiency.
Emily Engstler, the 4th overall pick in the same draft, showed a budding do everything skillset. Her defense enamors. She has effective and flashy passing in her bag. Queen Egbo was selected later on with the 10th pick and put together impressive stretches of play, flashing improved offense, and potentially dominant rim protection. Destanni Henderson showed real guile and craft as a pick and roll playmaker and dynamic pacing guard off the bench.
The 6th overall pick, Lexie Hull, struggled to find her shot early in the year. Adjusting to WNBA length and athleticism is a different acclimation process for every prospect, something Mitchell relates to.
“It’s as simple as going from the college line to the pro line. There’s so much that the people that judge and criticize don’t understand, like the lows you have to take in order to get a full understanding at the pro level. A lot gets misconstrued. It’s not easy, it just takes time.”
Mitchell feels Engstler and Hull can be real x-factors for the Fever this coming season and in the immediate future with their connective play. She sees the potential for both Smith and Egbo to dominate the paint with interior lay, while also being able to invert the floor and play outside-in with their ability to handle and face-up.
The potential is brimming.
Finding her own potential as a leader and growing into a more veteran role despite barely touching her prime, just turning 27 last week, was a focus this season. A late year foot injury cut her year short, but she was adamant that she wanted to stay around the team and be involved. She signed a multi-year extension prior to the 2021 season and wants to be in Indy. She wants to build with and lead the team to new heights.
The injury robbed her of finishing out a career season, one that was worthy of All-Star consideration. Mitchell improved as a playmaker, continues to slow down the game, and has molded herself into one of the premier pick and roll players and half-court scorers in basketball. But, the injury, the first of her pro career, brought a forced perspective that Mitchell finds beneficial.
“It was a big deal for me. I think mentally and psychologically, it was a rest button that I needed, a blessing in disguise” says Mitchell.
No one wants to get hurt of course, but it forced her to take time off and away from the game, something she hadn’t done since her time at Ohio State. She’s refreshed and excited to get back on the court with Athletes Unlimited in the late winter/early spring.
Christie Sides was named head coach of the Fever last week, a former assistant during Pokey Chatman’s tenure on Indiana’s sideline. Mitchell and Sides overlapped once she was drafted in 2018, and she’s eager to play for her and take the next step together as a team.
Sides took Mitchell under her wing when she came in as a rookie.
“She’s a no-nonsense person,” says Mitchell.
“As much fun as she likes to have, she’s one of those one’s that’s going to address the culture early in the game. She’s gonna make sure everyone is held accountable.”
As the Fever look to find and craft an identity in the coming season, that accountability and attention to detail will be vital. The Fever are young, but they’re talented, and they figure to improve even more so in that department with the number one pick. They have a small number of roster spots, but substantial cap space for the ever closer off-season.
As Indiana seeks to take the next step into competitiveness and stamping a firm place in the W, Kelsey Mitchell will undoubtedly be at the forefront of their pivot.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.