How will the Indiana Fever have a better 2019? For now, mostly by trusting what they’ve got.
Natalie Achonwa, Shenise Johnson and Erica Wheeler all signed free agent contracts on the first day of the signing period, Feb. 1, a group that includes two 2018 starters. Johnson didn’t play in 2018 due to an ACL injury sustained during the previous season, but started in 13 of her 14 games for the Fever in 2017 and could very well find herself back in the starting lineup in 2019.
Both Johnson and Achonwa played on the 2015 Fever team that reached the WNBA Finals, starting 27 and 17 games that season, respectively, and averaging a combined 18.9 points per game. Their re-signings, along with Wheeler’s — who was a rookie on the Atlanta Dream and New York Liberty in the summer of 2015 — will boost the core of a team that struggled from the beginning last season, going 0-10 before winning its first game.
The Fever’s core — which also includes leading scorer Candice Dupree, who besides Achonwa was the only player to start in every game she played last season — will get a boost in 2019 with the signing of Betnijah Laney, a player that could have a big impact on the defensive end this season. While Laney isn’t a Fever mainstay, she is a former mainstay for head coach Pokey Chatman, who along with her current staff coached Laney on the Chicago Sky in 2015 and 2016. Laney also overlapped with Wheeler at Rutgers, extending her familiarity with her new team.
The youth problem — or solution
One of the Fever’s major issues last season was its youth — that is, its lack of experience — as the team ended the season as the third-youngest in the league (though began it as the youngest). But the encouraging play of rookies Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians, both of whom started at least half of the teams’ games, provided a needed spark — an assurance that, in due time, this team can once again compete with the best.
As Mitchell and Vivians get more experience in the league, the consistency of Achonwa and Wheeler’s presence on the court (and the addition of Johnson) can only aid these young women’s success. Both had to prove themselves in what could already be the most difficult, disappointing season of their careers, and did so to the tune of a combined 21.6 points per game, with Mitchell leading the team in assists and Vivians leading in both three-point and free throw percentage.
Mitchell and Vivians showed in 2018 that they can not just contribute, but also thrive on a team that, for better or worse, needed them to get as much experience as possible as quickly as possible. And on a team with no real room for sophomore slumps, it’s good to have so much raw talent, whether coming off the bench or making starts as the team figures itself out.
Up in the air
With the above four signings, the last two players whose 2019 status is still in question are Asia Taylor, who the Fever signed last June, and Cappie Pondexter, who joined the team in July.
Taylor, a reserved player, has had success overseas, mostly recently being named the Perth Lynx’s Most Valuable Player for the 2018-19 WNBL season earlier this week. But while her skills make her a standout in Australia, she hasn’t quite had that kind of success in the WNBA, as she averages just 2.2 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. With not much room left on the Fever’s roster, it will be interesting to see where Taylor lands stateside this season.
Meanwhile, Pondexter, whose veteran presence reignited a young and slumping Fever team in the latter half of the season, may not resume that role in 2019. According to a Sunday night tweet, it appears the unrestricted free agent is moving on from the Fever, writing that she wants to be with a team she can “truly bond” with to finish out her career.
Despite having the best chance at winning the top pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, the Fever have to settle for the third overall pick this year. But considering the strength of this year’s draft class, having to settle for a different star player than the two teams ahead of them isn’t bad at all, especially for a team that needs a defensive anchor at the center position.
With the potential addition of Sabrina Ionescu to the draft — and the buzz surrounding the idea of her being taken first overall, if she does declare — either or both of the 2019 draft class’ top centers, Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan and Baylor’s Kalani Brown, will likely still be available by the time the Fever’s pick comes around.
Nabbing either McCowan or Brown would strengthen a defensive setup that could use the help, as the Fever allowed the second-most points per game in the WNBA last season. McCowan’s or Brown’s scoring prowess would also help dig out the Fever from last season’s last-place scoring output.
If the Fever can strike a balance between prime rookie talent and veteran leadership that they didn’t quite reach last season — but that they seemed to begin to figure out as the season wore on — the fact that they’ll only have one first-round pick (in addition to two third-round picks, players that may or may not pan out in the league) shouldn’t be a problem. Indiana seems to know what it’s doing this season, though whether or not their continued rebuilding strategy pays off can only be known once the season begins.