It took the Indiana Fever 18 games to reach two wins in 2021 — a difficult season that ended with a league-worst mark of 6-26. But Indiana recorded its second win this season in just its fourth game, a spirited 92-86 overtime win on the road last Friday against the New York Liberty.
Much of the early season surge for the Fever has been sparked by players who were still in college during the trying days of 2021. These rookies hold the promise of a better 2022 — and the potential for even more in the years to come.
Indiana is playing five rookies regularly after bringing in Lin Dunn as interim general manager and leaning into a full rebuild. Improvement is the name of the game for the Fever. And while it’s early, that’s just what Indiana is showing.
Let’s start with the basics. Offensively, the current Fever are about equal to their 2021 efficiency — 93.9 points per 100 possessions through the first sixth of the season, compared to 95.3 last season. Both figures rank 11th in the league. But somehow, this Indiana team, with nearly half its personnel new to the WNBA, is defending at a dramatically better rate than the 2021 squad. Last season, the Fever allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions, worst in the league. This year, that’s dropped to 101.2, which is ninth overall. Even that may be the new floor, not the ceiling, with veteran guard and perimeter defender extraordinaire Danielle Robinson only back for the past three games, and a 101-spot given up to the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday night without forward NaLyssa Smith, who missed the game with an ankle injury.
Smith was the first of the five rookies selected by Dunn in the 2022 draft — second overall, followed by Emily Engstler fourth, Lexie Hull sixth, Queen Egbo 10th and Destanni Henderson 20th. And Smith has made the immediate impact she was certain she would when we spoke months ago, during her undergraduate days at Baylor.
At 6-foot-4 but with a wingspan that allows her to play considerably bigger, Smith has been the mobile four the Fever drafted her to be, and right away. She’s averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds through her first five pro contests, figures that will likely improve as her shot selection does. She’s shooting just 40 percent overall, with a large number of misses coming in the midrange. But she’s hitting north of 30 percent of her threes already, without any hesitation in getting her own shot, and finishing at the rim well.
“It comes from confidence within yourself,” Smith told me as we chatted in the back halls of Barclays Center last Friday night. “… If you come in with the mindset that you’re not supposed to be here, you’re gonna play like that. So you know, I tried to play like I belong and I get the result that I do.”
Most important: her immediate impact on the boards. During Indiana’s win over the Liberty, Smith grabbed 17 rebounds — seven offensive to keep possessions going and 10 more at the defensive end.
The latter is another way Indiana can get better at that end of the floor.
“We talk about trying to get consecutive stops a lot,” head coach Marianne Stanley said. “… A lot of times, the stop is only as good as your rebounding is. If your rebounding is not good, you can be good in the first 23 seconds or whatever. And the shot goes up and the rebound comes off. And if the other team gets it, it’s a new possession for them.”
Smith’s 17 rebounds led Indiana last Friday, but former Baylor teammate Queen Egbo added 14 of her own, 11 on the defensive end. Egbo actually sports a higher defensive rebounding percentage, 29.2, than Smith’s 25.4 so far. But neither of them leads the team: That would be Engstler, whose 35.2 currently sits atop the league. (The entire trio is among the top eight.)
But the rookies aren’t just contributing on the glass. Egbo is providing the two-way production the Fever hoped for when they drafted her, hitting 54.3 percent of her shots from the field, almost all inside 10 feet, while blocking shots at a 5.6 percent rate, good for eighth in the league so far. Engstler is ahead of her there, too, with a 7.0 blocking percentage that ranks sixth in the league.
Both Egbo and Engstler clearly enjoy the fight.
“I’m just here to do what the team drafted me to do, and that’s be a menace on the boards and be a defensive presence,” Egbo said. “And definitely, crashing the boards is something I look forward to.”
Engstler is, simply, the defensive disruptor she was during her time at Louisville, making plays the caliber of her highlights for Jeff Walz’s Final Four team this past season. Still, Engstler stressed how far she has to go when I recited some of these numbers to her courtside — her shot selection and finishing need work, for instance, and her true shooting percentage reflects it so far. This, of course, is typical rookie stuff. The defending is not.
“I mean, I think there’s plenty for me to work on still,” Engstler said. “I’m still adjusting to the league and getting used to my teammates, how this organization wants us to defend. But I think that I’m doing everything that I can with physicality and energy.”
Note the communication here between Engstler and reserve center Alanna Smith, the former keeping 2021 Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere out of the lane, then blocking her shot, Smith moving in rhythm and grabbing the loose ball to send Indiana down the other way.
This is not an isolated incident. Check out how many of the three-person lineups among the best defensive-performing groups for Indiana so far feature multiple rookies.
As for Henderson, she performed admirably in Robinson’s absence, hitting 63.6 percent of her threes and guiding the offense with an assist percentage north of 31. Both these skills were among the reasons the Fever drafted her, and it is a welcome sign for the team that they have translated to the pro level immediately.
“If I’m feeling good on the floor, you know, my shot is open, I’m just gonna take it,” Henderson said during pregame warmups Friday. “I believe in myself, and I believe in my shot.”
As for defending, she’s got the perfect mentor in Robinson to help her learn that end of the floor. Robinson’s 94.7 defensive rating is second among current Fever players — behind only Smith.
Of course, the rookies alone aren’t enough to overhaul Indiana. The team’s 2022 season will be dictated at least in part by Robinson’s continued ability to hit the three ball, a skill she says she picked up overseas this past winter, along with the given stardom of guard Kelsey Mitchell, who should make an All-Star team this year at long last. Veteran wing Victoria Vivians finally looks as comfortable on the floor as she did when she was a star at Mississippi State, which has combined with Hull’s early-season shooting slump to push the rookie out of Stanford to the bench, though the Fever remain high on her.
But ultimately, the future of this team, and even its 2022 ceiling, will be dictated largely by the five rookies.
“They were a bunch of great collegiate players as well,” Robinson said. “And so I think they’re just carrying it over, there’s a confidence about them that is natural. You’ve got to just take that and keep feeding them and letting play through mistakes. But they’re hungry to win, they’re hungry to bring their energy and effort to the team. And so that’s just what they’re doing.”
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