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

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.

WNBA Awards So Far: MVP, Rookie of the Year and more

We are at the 40% mark of the 2020 WNBA season, with each team having played 9 games. To get a sense for where we are at in this season, here are my picks for a few of the awards if the season ended today. Here are my picks for MVP, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, and most improved player

MVP:

1.  Breanna Stewart

Stewart is averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, on 61% true shooting. She is averaging 2 steals and 1.3 blocks. Even with Sue Bird missing a few games this Storm team has not missed a beat. Stewart has been the best player in the league. I would not rely on a single advanced stat to prove Stewart’s case, but when she leads in PIPM, win shares, and is in the top 3 in the WNBA’s player impact estimate, it helps make the case. 

Her versatility is key to the Storm. She can effectively play the point guard on offense when the team is short handed, while still providing above average rim protection on the defensive end. Good luck having your power forward try to run the offense out of the high post. Damiras Dantas had the ball stripped multiple times by Stewart. She is a key part of the Storm’s trapping scheme, with her speed and long arms.

The big wing who can provide some rim protection while also offering shot creation on the other end is the most valuable type of player in modern basketball. With Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore sitting out, Breanna Stewart is the best version of this player in the WNBA.

2. Sylvia Fowles

Fowles does not have the shot creation burden that other top MVP candidates do, and that in some ways can hamstring the Lynx. The flip side, however, is the Lynx can afford to play more limited defensive players around Fowles and still end up with a top defense. Crystal Dangerfield is 5’5”, if that. Dantas, Napheesa Collier, and Lexie Brown know where to be, but none are shut down defenders at this point. It is mostly because of Fowles that the Lynx are top 4, and were top 2 before Fowles missed a couple of games, in defense. In particular, her ability to combine being 6’6” near the basket and effectively defend in space makes her the front runner for DPOY.

While it may no longer be the most efficient play to throw the ball into Fowles when she is guarded by a decent post defender, she is still very effective in the pick and roll as a screener. She also will punish any switches, such that teams have to fight to get through her screens, leaving space for Dangerfield and Brown to excel. The one knock is she does not pass, with a negative assist to turnover ratio. Passing is not a necessary skill for a center like Fowles, but it does limit how she can be used a bit, along with her lack of shooting. Hopefully her calf injury is not too serious and we get to see more of Fowles this season soon.

3. A’ja Wilson

Apologies to Candace Parker, who I had penciled in here before looking closely at both players. Either one would be a fair choice here. Wilson has been a dominant scorer in the face of double and triple teams this year. She is third in the WNBA in usage among starters who have played 7 games, behind two ball dominant guards in Chennedy Carter and Arike Ogunbuwale. She has managed a TS of 55%, even though she has yet to shoot a 3 this season. That is a middling efficiency number,  but given how starved the Aces are of shooting and Wilson’s lack of a 3 point shot herself, it’s frankly amazing she has been even that effective.

Defensively, Wilson is not as airtight as a help defender as one would like from someone with her physical gifts. However, she is a very good on ball defender both in the post and when switched onto smaller players. She has been a key cog in one of the best defensive teams in the league this year. 

The main area in which Candace Parker is leaps and bounds ahead of Wilson is passing. Parker is a great passer, whereas Wilson has an assist to turnover ratio below 1. One day hopefully we will see Wilson play with more than 1 shooter in a modern offense, because that would give us a more accurate read on her passing. As it is, the few times she does pass, she is passing to players close to her who can’t shoot. 

Others Considered:

As mentioned, Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson are basically a coin flip at this point. I went with Wilson because the Aces have been slightly more successful, with a better net rating, but it has been great seeing Parker be so effective. She also provides more spacing than Wilson, allowing for LA to play a wider variety of bigs successfully. 

Angel McCoughtry stands out in advanced stats. I’m not sure the rest of the Aces are so limited to justify 2 MVP candidates, but she has been very good. Still a bruising force slashing to the basket, and she is even canning just enough threes to force teams to at least somewhat guard her out there, which is great for Vegas. 

Rookie of the Year:

This year the rookie of the year race looks like it’s going to be somewhat a battle over how to define best. In particular, how to balance a player who plays a lot of minutes for a bad team, and puts up ok numbers, vs. a player who puts up excellent stats on a good team, but only plays limited minutes. The Chennedy Carter vs. Ezi Magbegor conundrum, if you will. For now, I value contributing in large minutes at an ok level.

1. Chennedy Carter

Carter has been as advertised on offense. Her ability to get to the rim is already among the best in the WNBA. She is shooting it better than expected, 42% from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game and 88% from the free throw line. Her turnover rate is high, but paradoxically that is a good sign for a young point guard, as that generally improves with experience. Guard is the toughest position to play for young players, and she is already excellent.

Chennedy Carter’s defense has been poor, which drags down her rating in advanced stats like pipm that look at defense. However, her team is the worst defensive team in the league and it is hard to pin the blame for their struggles on that end on her. Rookies are generally bad at defense, and point guards have more limited impact than bigs on defense anyways. Here is hoping Carter can come back and play more this year, as she is currently out with an ankle injury.

2. Julie Allemand

Julie Allemand will not continue to shoot 56% from 3, or lead the league in TS% at 70. However, even with some regression to the mean, she will likely still be a plus shooter. She is a good passer, who while she has had some befuddling turnovers, is still sporting an assist to turnover ratio of 2.0, second to Tyasha Harris among the rookie crop of point guards. 

Defensively she struggles against bigger guards, but has held her own against other point guards, and has even turned in some highlight blocks. The Fever struggle on defense, but that is more on their bigs and wings than on Allemand.

3. Crystal Dangerfield

Crystal Dangerfield is a rookie playing nearly 30 minutes per game for a team that is currently tied for third in the standings. Her numbers do not stand out, but rather she has simply been solid across the board. For a rookie point guard on a good team, that is impressive. She even has room to grow, as I bet that her 3 point percentage of 31% will go up as the season goes on. She was an excellent shooter in college. 

Her height is always going to be an issue on defense, but she competes hard on that end and has not been the negative that some expected so far. That will likely change in the playoffs, when teams have the time to focus on exploiting matchups, but for the regular season, she has been very good.

Others considered:

Satou Sabally still looks like she could be the best player from this draft, but her shooting has been so bad that she is not on this list at the moment. 35% from 2 and 15% from 3 just does not cut it. She has moments of defensive brilliance, but as with many rookie wings and bigs, is still learning the nuances of pick and roll defense. 

Ezi Magbegor and Tyasha Harris are putting up the best numbers in smaller minutes. Magbegor is shooting 67% from the field and has earned the first off the bench minutes as a big on the best team in the league. She just does not play that much, and benefits from consistently being surrounded by excellent teammates. 

I have no idea why Harris is not playing more, it’s like Moriah Jefferson is killing it. Harris has a ridiculous assist-turnover ratio of 3.88 and is shooting 43% from 3. She’s bigger than Jefferson and can guard a couple of positions. She definitely could leap into the top 3, if given more playing time. 

DPOY:

Sylvia Fowles. She is simply the player on one of the best defenses in the league who is crucial to that defense. The team falls apart defensively without her. Breanna Stewart also has an argument, but she is surrounded by Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, who are all first team all-defense caliber players. If Bill Laimbeer started Hamby, which he should, and played her 30+ minutes, she might have a case as well, given her versatility on defense between the 3, 4 and 5. 

Most Improved player:

This is not my favorite category, as even compared to other awards the criteria are ill-defined. For my sake, I don’t vote for 2nd year players for this category, since they almost always improve simply because it is their 2nd year. I also tend to stay away from players whose  improvements are mostly related to playing more minutes. Good to earn minutes, but not always clear if the player is actually better or simply taking advantage of the opportunity.

For these reasons, I am going with Betnijah Laney. She is only playing 5 minutes more per game this year, but she went from being an offensive liability in Indiana, to being at times the entire offense for Atlanta. She has also done this while maintaining her strong defense. It’s not her fault the Dream can not stop anyone.  

Myisha Hines-Allen has been impressive, even after cooling off after her strong start. She likely improved, but the big change has been that she is no longer buried behind 2 of the best players in the WNBA in Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. Meesseman starts next to her, given the lack of effective true centers on the roster, and EDD is still rehabbing a back injury. 

Defending in Space: Sylvia Fowles vs. Teaira McCowan

Sylvia Fowles is a first ballot Hall of Famer who is still playing at a high level at age 36. The 6’6” center for the Minnesota Lynx is good for reasons that are clear when watching her. Her low post scoring, rebounding, and being really tall at the rim are obvious when watching her. An area of her game that is less obvious, but that has allowed her to thrive despite the changes in WNBA playing style over the previous 5 years, is her ability to defend in space.

Teaira McCowan at her best appears to be the best of the next wave of dominant centers in the WNBA. However, she has only started 3 of the Fever’s 7 games, and those starts were due to injuries. For the 6’7” center for the Indiana Fever to reach her potential, she will need to show that she can go from being a liability guarding in space to someone who can hold her own, even when teams repeatedly target her. 

The WNBA, like all levels of basketball, has realized over the past five years that 3>2. Since 2014, the percent of shots from the 3 in the WNBA has gone from 21% to 29% in 2019. That’s from this article in the Athletic ($) about the rise of the 3 in the W, worth reading if you have a subscription. This shift has shown no signs of slowing down this season, as more teams are even having centers like Kiah Stokes of the New York Liberty, who had never shot 3s before this year, fire away.  

While shooting more 3s is better than long 2s because of the extra point, it is not the only benefit to shooting 3s. The other reason 3 point shooting leads to better offense is that it helps create much wider driving lanes for players to attack off the dribble, thus improving offense in the paint as well. This forces centers to spend more time guarding in space against guards and forwards. Post defense is still useful for centers, but defending in space matters as much if not more.

Compare and contrast the 2019 Mystics and the 2015 Indiana Fever. The Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history with an offensive rating of 112.9 points scored per 100 possessions last year with pristine spacing. The Indiana Fever made it to the finals in 2015 and pushed the Minnesota Lynx to 5 games. They were 3rd in offense that year, with an offensive rating of 99.8. They led the league in percentage from 3, at 36%, but they only took 14.9 threes per game. The Mystics in 2019 took 25.4. The Lynx took even fewer 3s and were worse on offense, if you are wondering why I highlight the Fever here.

This can be seen just by looking at the spacing on the floor.

Sylvia Fowles was on the Lynx team that beat those Fever in that finals in 2015. She went from playing against that kind of spacing, to playing the Washington Mystics with 4 or 5 shooters at a time. This is a transition that has run other centers out of the WNBA entirely, or forced them to be situational players. Carolyn Swords, for instance, starts for the Aces, but typically plays between 10 and 20 minutes.

Fowles, however, has been able to keep up with the changes. She is excellent at defending in space. While not the swiftest player laterally, she is significantly more effective on this type of plays than many of her younger contemporaries, such as Liz Cambage or Brittney Griner. One can see this in that teams are disinclined to even challenge her. When she shares the court with Damiras Dantas, teams are more likely to run the pick and roll with Dantas’ defender. And Dantas is a fairly athletic big in her own right.

Sylvia Fowles here is defending a Courtney Vandersloot pick and roll. Vandersloot, of the Chicago Sky, is a good athlete who finishes fairly well at the rim. Even though Vandersloot has a head of steam, Fowles is able to move her feet and Vandersloot hits the bottom of the backboard. Fowles is decisive on where to go. Even one false move or hesitation and Vandersloot is at the rim with an open layup. 

Sylvia Fowles defends pick and roll successfully.

Fowles is able to do this against even the best slashers. Kahleah Copper, also of the Chicago Sky, is as fast as they come in the W, and at 6’2” has the size to finish over and around size. Fowles is called for the foul here, but that was a very questionable call.. She forces Copper to make a wild pass back out.

Fowles good defense on Kahleah Copper

Compare those plays by Fowles, against two talented players with experience in the W, with McCowan trying to defend pick and rolls involving the Wings’ 3 rookies, Tyasha Harris, Bella Alarie, and Satou Sabally. Alarie, being guarded by McCowan, screens for Harris here. McCowan seems unsure of where to be. She is not high enough to contest if Tyasha Harris shoots off the dribble from 3, which fair, that’s a shot the Fever is likely willing to give up, but then she is still completely unable to provide any resistance to Harris at the rim. She is standing on the wrong side of Alarie, and it’s not like Alarie suddenly flipped the screen.

McCowan not defending Tyasha Harris.

This is a regular season game with 3 rookies repeatedly targeting Tearra McCowan. Imagine if the Fever made the playoffs against a team like the Storm, what would happen. Here is another example, about a minute later in the same game against the Wings. Once again, Alarie is being guarded by McCowan, and screens, this time for Satou Sabally.  McCowan switches out onto Satou Sabally, thus leaving her on an island against Sabally. It does not go well for Indiana.

McCowan not defending Satou Sabally

Defending in space, both in the pick and roll and when switched onto a smaller player, is among the hardest things for a young big to learn in the pros. McCowan will get better at this part of the game, but she has a long way to go to reach the predictions some had of her being a top 10 player in the WNBA. While it frustrates Fever fans, this is likely part of why Marianne Stanley has opted to not start Teaira McCowan.

Sylvia Fowles, on the other hand, has a team that is starting a rookie 5’5” (if that) pg in Crystal Dangerfield and giving heavy minutes to other unheralded rookies near the top of the standings in the WNBA. She does have help, in particular Napheesa Collier is following up her rookie of the year campaign with another good season so far.  But Fowles’ ability to keep up with a changing league and stay as effective as she has is as impressive as it comes. Here’s hoping her calf injury is not too serious and she is able to come back soon this season.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever had a better year in 2019 than 2018, going from 12th to 9th, and just missing the playoffs. The next step, making the playoffs, will likely need to wait another year or two. While the Fever have some good pieces, it is unclear if this is a team with a player who can be a top 10 player in the W, much less top 5. That will define how this rebuild goes, and I am not hopeful.

While Pokey Chatman knew basketball well, Marianne Stanley will hopefully bring the style of the Washington Mystics with her. More 3s and better spacing on offense. Indiana does not have Elene Delle Donne, so the results won’t be as good, but the style should be playable.

Though the offense should be more dynamic, it was league average at 7th in 2019. The defense, at 11th, was even more of a struggle. In time, Lauren Cox will be able to help with this, but asking a rookie big to make a big difference on defense is a tall order. Year 2 Teaira McCowan should be better, as well, especially near the basket.

The Fever have lots of cap space, according to Richard Cohen, and so should a disgruntled star want out they could be a destination. The difficult part is convincing said player to want to go to Indianapolis. Indianapolis is an underrated city, and is the WNBA city I live closest too, but needless to say it is no LA or Las Vegas. 

Speaking of the difficulty of getting a star, this is why I would have taken Chennedy Carter over Lauren Cox. Lauren Cox’s floor is higher than Carter’s, as a solid big she should have a good WNBA career, but her upside is not nearly as high. For a small market team like Indiana, drafting is the only way to build a championship contending team, and sometimes risks need to be taken.

Unless Cox starts shooting threes at a high volume and increases her shot creation, which is possible, if not likely, it is hard to envision her becoming the kind of star a team can build around. Even a number 2 on a championship team seems like a stretch. Carter may not figure out her shooting to reach her potential, but if she does, watch out. 

The team seems to be in about the same position as last year. Major growth from Teaira McCown and Kelsey Mitchell are the best hope for a better than expected year, but this team is likely to finish in the same spot as last year, if not lower.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: 

Julie Allemand

Notable Losses: 

none

Draft Picks: 

First round: Lauren Cox 

Second Round: Kathleen Doyle

Third round: Kamiah Smalls (already cut)

Projected Depth Chart:

Guards: Erica Wheeler, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Kathleen Doyle, Julie Allemand

Wings: Victoria Vivians, Bitnajah Laney, Kennedy Burke

Bigs: Teaira McCowan, Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, Stephanie Mavunga. 

Julie Allemand is a 23 yr old point guard with high level experience in Europe. Given the Fever’s options at point are unsettled, she is worth a look. Kathleen Doyle and Stephanie Mavunga are the players I am least confident about making the team. 

Playing time breakdown:

Teaira McCowan is the one player guaranteed to be starting. She was an effective center last year who generated fouls at a higher rate than comparable centers like Sylvia Fowles and Liz Cambage. She shot only 57% in the restricted area, so a main goal should be to get that up into the mid 60s, where comparable top centers finish. 

She is so big at 6’ 7” that she is a deterrent at the rim, but will continue to need to work on defending in space, and the rest of the roster will need to play a style that minimizes her lack of mobility. But she is a key piece of the Fever’s future.

The swing spot for this team in terms of style of play is going to be the 4. Will Candice Dupree finally take two steps back and shoot 3s? Can Lauren Cox up the number of attempts she takes from 3 to make teams honor her out there? Either way, finding a way to add more shooting to the lineup will maximize Teaira McCowan’s effectiveness rolling to the rim and should be a priority long term for the Fever. 

My vote is for more playing time for Cox. Dupree is a smart player who has had a wonderful career, but she can be an effective backup and mentor for Cox, while Cox learns to play with McCowan. Cox will make more mistakes on defense, but also provide more rim protection.

Some analysts ($) have Candice Dupree playing the 3, but at this point in her career, her lack of foot speed and the lack of 3 point shooting makes that unworkable. A healthy Victoria Vivians would be ideal for this spot. At 6’1” Vivians was a phenomenal shooter in 2018, shooting 40% on 5 attempts per game as a rookie, before missing all of last year with an ACL injury. When healthy, she has the athleticism and size to guard the top wing scorers in the W, which would be big for a Fever team that was limited in two way players at wing in 2019.

Kelsey Mitchell will almost certainly start. The question that the Fever should be trying to answer this year is whether long term she is their point guard or shooting guard. Her assist % was low for a point guard at 19%, compared to her teammate Erica Wheeler at 35%. Her shooting and shot creation are valuable skills that are hard to find. Should she improve her pick and roll decision making, she has the outlines of a dynamic modern point guard who can shoot 3s off the dribble in the pick and roll. The hope for the Fever is in year 3 she is set for a breakout, a la Kelsey Plum last year.

Erica Wheeler is a solid point guard, especially if she shoots like she did last year, at 37% on a decent number of attempts per game. At 29 she is the second oldest player on the team, and as an undersized guard who relies on athleticism might not age well. But for this year, she and Kelsey Mitchell will likely play a lot of minutes together.

Tiffany Mitchell quietly received, after Bria Hartley, the most curious deal in the most recent free agency at $140,000 over 3 years, per High Post Hoops. She is the highest paid player on the Fever, and will likely not start this year. As previously discussed, they have the cap space to add a new player, and pay their players on rookie deals, so it might not cost them other opportunities, but I’m not sure her leaving for Atlanta would have been the end of the world. It seemed like Atlanta made out better when their offer was matched by the Fever. She would be, what, the fifth guard on the Dream?

Mitchell has more offensive ability than Laney or Burke, so she might be able to play backup minutes at the 3 as well as the 2, against certain matchups, but she lacks the size for that to be a long term option, at only 5’9”. She attacks the basket fairly well, but has shot under 30% her 3 years in the league who tends to get tunnel vision on drives.

Year 2 of Teaira McCowan and year 3 of Kelsey Mitchell give Fever fans something to look forward to. I am lower on the long term outlook of this team than some comparable teams. One of their players popping and showing unexpected growth would solve their lack of a star player. Until then, this is a team with a lower ceiling than is ideal. The rebuild continues.