To say the Indiana Fever have struggled the past half-decade would be an undersell. No team has won fewer games in the last five years in the WNBA. The closest teams, by comparison, Atlanta and New York, have won 18 and 13 more games, respectively. That’s rough no matter the context, but the history of the Fever makes it all the more frustrating.
Indiana made the second round of the playoffs eight times in an 11-season stretch, including three appearances in the W Finals and a championship in 2012.
A front office overhaul in February saw legendary player Tamika Catchings step down as General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations after working in the front office since 2017. Lin Dunn was brought in as an interim replacement, formerly the head coach of the 2012 title team and long-time coach across the W and NCAA.
The Fever got involved in a three-team trade with the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury prior to Catchings’ resignation, with Bria Hartley, a 2023 first (Chicago) and a second-round pick (Phoenix), and the 7th and 20th overall picks coming back in exchange for Julie Allemand. Dunn made her own move less than a month into her tenure, sending out Teaira McCowan, the 7th overall pick, and Chicago’s ’23 first to Dallas for the 4th and 6th picks in the draft.
On draft night, the Fever became the first team in league history to make four selections in the first round of the draft. That’s without mentioning the three picks (Ali Patberg was waived on April 21st) made in the second and third rounds.
For a team in desperate need of a reset in the right direction and talent across the board, Indiana took a vital first step in setting up the foundation of a hopefully fruitful era of basketball.
NaLyssa Smith, the 2nd overall pick out of Baylor, sets the tone for the draft class. At 6’4 with a plus wingspan and overwhelming athleticism, Smith has the prototypical build of a dominant forward. She absolutely dominates in transition, ripping and running coast to coast off opponent misses.
Smith finished 11th in the NCAA in rebounding, corralling 11.5 per game, and was among the best in Division one at converting those looks into fastbreak opportunities, finishing in the 99th percentile in both transition points and attempts per CBBAnalytics.
She also was in the 98th percentile in second-chance points per game while shooting a blistering 65% on putbacks. Smith has an impressive nose for the ball, tracking it extremely well on both ends, setting the table for easy baskets.
The things Smith does on the court that aren’t easy, at least by normal standards, are what made her such a coveted draft pick.
Her jumper, while not fully extended out to three with consistency yet, is silky, shooting 45% on long twos this season per InStat Scouting. Her mid-range game is built on her jumper, but the fluidity and coordination she has off the bounce is frankly absurd. She’s legitimately got some of the best footwork I’ve seen from a prospect, out of size-ups, drives, post-ups; you name it, and Smith has the move down to a T.
Her touch and ability to finish through contact while still garnering a high volume of fouls is remarkable.
She’s fantastic at floating in the paint as well, opening herself up in the dunker spot or flashing to the paint for quick jumpers or attacks off the catch. Baylor even used her regularly as a lob threat off of back cuts and set actions. Even without a three-pointer, Smith has to be guarded pretty much anywhere on the court.
That opens up even more for her and the offense! She’s a dynamic threat as a dribble handoff operator.
Smith is a good screener, both in creating separation and angling to get her ball-handler open. When handling the ball herself, the quickness she has off rips along with her footwork make her an extremely tough guard, especially considering the advantages she has. She’s quicker than most bigs but stronger than most forwards or wings, capable of creating mismatches across the floor.
Smith is a near-complete scoring prospect. Given her touch from the mid-range, on push shots/floaters, and her free throw numbers, it’s more a matter of when than if she becomes a solid shooter from deep.
I’ll be really interested to see how she’s utilized defensively by head coach Marianne Stanley. Smith is at her best switching to keep opponents in front, but there are questions about how she plays in space on defense and impacts shots around the rim.
That makes her pairing with the fourth overall pick, Emily Engstler, that much more enticing. Engstler was a high-level recruit coming out of high school and a successful player at Syracuse, but really broke out this season after transferring to Louisville. Her efficiency increased even with a larger usage and role, and most impressively, she averaged 4.5 stocks (steals and blocks) per game. That’s ridiculous levels of events creation on defense. For reference, only seven players finished the season averaging more than one steal and one block per game last season in the W.
Her instincts in help-defense and recovery, in tandem with her length and timing, make her a forceful rim protector from the weak side and defending in pick and roll.
She has impressive moments switching out onto ball-handlers, blowing up plays with her length, or riding outdrives to the rim and funneling to help.
Engstler feels like a future staple on All-Defensive teams and the perfect player to help set a defensive backbone for the Fever.
Her offense is so funky and in the best way. She shot well from three on moderate volume the last three seasons (something that will be important to maintain), paving the way for her drive game. She has really solid ball skills and a great feel for the game, adept at keeping the ball moving and making quick decisions. The live dribble passes she displayed attacking closeouts are one of the more intriguing swing skills in the draft.
Engstler isn’t going to create a ton of advantages herself, but her ability to capitalize upon already existing advantages and to exacerbate them makes her an ideal player off of a primary option. One of the main things to track will be how she continues to develop counters and some pacing on drives, as she shot 33.9% on drives this season per InStat scouting.
With the sixth overall pick, the Fever selected Lexie Hull out of Stanford. While the move surprised many, it’s not difficult to see a role for Hull in the WNBA.
Hull shot 37.3% from deep over four years at Stanford, including 39.3% during her senior season.
Hull can get her shot off in a variety of ways off multiple motions, although it’ll be interesting to see if she can add some flexibility as a shooter. It seems minute, but she really needs to be square to get a good shot off right now, and the very best shooters off movement can hit with awkward motion, and she’s not quite there yet.
Shooting can at times be overrated, but Hull is near that upper crust of shooters and supplements her prowess outside the arc with a really good feel for the game and off-ball movement. Playing off of Smith feels like a natural partnership, as Hull can space the floor incredibly well for a dominant interior presence. Those DHOs we mentioned earlier, man, the idea of Hull and Smith running two-player actions to force the defense into some dark waters is a fun proposition.
She makes good reads and passes as a connective wing, although she has some shortcomings as a finisher and driver on the interior at the moment that will be worth tracking.
Defensively, Hull likely won’t be the reason a team gets stops, but she factors in well with her size and length and can impact plays off the ball with decisive hands and solid lateral quickness. How Hull fits as a natural cog in Indiana will be key for the Fever as they seek to build out their roster.
Queen Egbo, Smith’s frontcourt partner at Baylor, went 10th overall. She’s stepped in immediately, starting for Indiana in their second preseason game after a good performance in their first showing. While it’s worth noting that preseason is wonky, Ebgo averaged 13 points and 9.5 boards in two games while shooting 73.3% from the field!
Egbo is a quality screener, and I’m really excited to see what she can do in tandem with Fever star guard Kelsey Mitchell. Mitchell is such a dynamic pick and roll scorer and adding a dynamic screener alongside her could open up her game in new ways. Can Mitchell take steps as a passer/playmaker with Egbo paving the way? She’s an effective and efficient scorer on the interior with a solid back-to-the-basket game and fun flashes with a shoulder fade. Those lobs to Smith mentioned earlier? Egbo was often a deliverer of them from high low action and put solid touch on the ball when making set plays from the perimeter.
How Egbo develops as a shooter from the mid-range (33% on long twos last year per InStat) and growth as a playmaker on the roll or in two-player actions will be worth keeping tabs on. Her rebounding and energy on the offensive glass is impactful, but rounding out her offensive game will be significant.
Defensively, Egbo imposes herself as a shot-blocker and is a stout post defender. She has really bright flashes as a defender in a variety of pick and roll coverages and could become a force on that end as she develops.
I legitimately cannot fathom that Destanni Henderson fell to the 20th pick in the draft. It’s not even remotely warm to say that Henny is the likely steal of the draft.
Her change of pace and handle are elite tools in this draft class. She buoys her half-court game with a stellar pull-up jumper. Henderson has a wildly impressive array of finishes on the inside; running hooks, a crafty floater, off-hand layins, and scoops. She’s a walking And-1 mixtape.
Her pick and roll game is a significant plus, she is capable of making the right reads, and she times both set-ups and passes so well against however the defense plays her.
She’s a good shooter, but finding more versatility as an off-ball shooter will be a boon for her. The national title game was a great showing of her impact when she flows off the ball and relocates, something I really want to see more of!
Her hands are fantastic defensively, and she’s great at applying ball pressure, although screen navigation is an area of improvement.
Henny certainly has some limitations, but the upside is so clear and evident in her game.
While the regular season will be the proving ground for those drafted, their college tape provides a reason for excitement. Indiana will more than likely be a team far on the outside looking in on the playoff picture this season, but the steps they’ve taken give cause for hope of what they could be in the coming years. This team is going to be worth your watch on League Pass! The talent and upside are there, and while the consistency won’t be, getting to watch this group grow and develop will be a noteworthy storyline this season.
Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.