Looking Forward: Who is the Indiana Fever’s Future Star?

Kelsey Mitchell shoots a basketball

The major question about the Indiana Fever as we come up on the end of the regular season is the same as the one before the season started. Who on this team can be projected as a top 10 player in the WNBA? Who is the high upside player the Fever should be building around? There is less clarity on these questions than for any other team in the WNBA. 

There is little movement of top players in the WNBA and what little there is unlikely to benefit the Indiana Fever. Indiana is not a destination top players sign with as a free agent or force trades to. That leaves the draft as the best chance to find top players, the kind that can return the Fever to playoff contention.

The Fever have been rebuilding since Tamika Catchings retired after the 2016 season. They have had top picks in the 2018-2020 drafts Over those three years the Fever took Kelsey Mitchell with the 2nd pick in 2018, Teaira McCowan with the third pick in 2019 and Lauren Cox with the third pick in 2020.

Draft misses occur. The Fever are far from the only team who likely regret passing on Napheesa Collier. The concern with the drafting record of the Fever is it is unclear what the process behind the drafting was. Drafting the clear best player but often there is not a clear best player at a given draft slot. Within tiers of players with relatively similar outlooks, teams should take into account the kinds of stars it takes to win in the WNBA. The Fever do not appear to have done this.

The 2020 season has shown that the WNBA is only accelerating into the trend that the most important type of player is the big wing. Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, and Candace Parker are all in the hunt for MVP for a reason.

After those players, the next most important type of player is a guard who can shoot threes off the dribble at a decent rate. Courtney Vandersloot, Arike Ogunbowale, and Diana Taurasi have different playing styles, but all are able to hit threes off the dribble if defenses give them too much space. As is no coincidence, they are the guards contending for first team all-WNBA.

Kelsey Mitchell can shoot threes of the dribble and make them at a high rate, and no big wings of note were taken after her. It is the next two drafts that raise questions. The Fever took McCowan over Napheesa Collier and Ogunbowale in 2019 and Lauren Cox over Chennedy Carter this past draft. Collier is going to miss first team all-WNBA only because of how stacked her position is. Ogunbowale may miss, but only because Taurasi is still killing it at 38. Carter would be rookie of the year had she stayed healthy.

Kelsey Mitchell has the shooting and athleticism to at least play like Diana Taurasi. While it is unfair to expect anyone to reach Taurasi’s level, Taurasi can still be an example to show where Kelsey Mitchell can take her game. Here we can compare Taurasi’s 2018 season, when at age 36 she led the Mercury to within minutes of the WNBA finals, to Kelsey Mitchell.

PlayerTS%3PA/ gameFTA/ GameAssists
Diana Taurasi (201863%8.85.95.3
Kelsey Mitchell(2020)57%6.73.22.8

Kelsey Mitchell may not need to go to quite the foul seeking limits that Taurasi does, she can still increase how many she tkaes per game. She also has the ability to sometimes take a step or two back and shoot deeper threes, while also limiting how often she takes a step or two in to take a long 2, instead of just shooting the 3.

Unlike Mitchell, who has a path to stardom, even if Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan reach their potential, and become the best versions of themselves, it is hard to see either being as good as Napheesa Collier or Chennedy Carter. Collier is giving the Lynx great minutes at either the 3 or the 4 and shooting 36% from 3. Chennedy Carter even without a reliable three point shot can break down opposing defenses and if she continues to improve her shooting off the dribble, her upside is as high as any guard to enter the league the last few years.

Teaira McCowan has started only half the Fever’s games, and has been quite likely the least effective center on defense in the WNBA. She is not solely to blame for the Fever having the worst defense in the WNBA, but she has certainly not helped.

For a league that is trending smaller and emphasizing shooting, drafting two likely centers back to back is a bold decision that leaves questions about where the Fever are headed. Cox, in admittedly few minutes, did look able to move her feet and play defense, and even hit a few threes, but most of her best defensive minutes were at center. Hopefully we see more of her next year, as the combination of covid-19 and a knee injury limited Cox to 13 minutes per game in only 14 games.

The Fever will for the fourth year in a row have a high draft pick in the 2021 draft. Rennia Davis of Tennessee has the look of a big wing of the future. If she is not available when the Fever draft, taking a chance on a wing who has not quite figured out the shooting would make sense.

Tamika Catchings, the Fever great, is running the Fever now. It is quite the coincidence that the player the Fever most need is a player like Catchings. Whether the Fever can find such a player will go a long way towards whether the Fever can make it out of the doldrums of a rebuilding team.