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2023 WNBA season preview: Aliyah Boston likely to start Fever’s turnaround on defense, then offense

With the big four of Kelsey Mitchell, Aliyah Boston, Erica Wheeler and NaLyssa Smith, are the Indiana Fever actually going to be quite a bit better than they were last year?

Aliyah Boston introductiory press conference
First-year Fever coach Christie Sides (left) and Aliyah Boston
Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Everybody wants to know if the Fever can make the playoffs. How good will Aliyah Boston make them right away?

Well, it won’t just be about Aliyah Boston. The return of Erica Wheeler will be huge, as will how big of a sophomore leap NaLyssa Smith takes. But even if it was just the addition of Boston and not Wheeler too, people would expect a lot, even in Year 1. Because Boston is not considered just any No. 1 pick; she is considered to be a franchise player. Rhyne Howard led the Dream to improvement as a rookie and that was seen as a success even though they missed the playoffs. Will the Fever have to make the playoffs for Boston’s first year to be seen as a success? Boston does have more hype surrounding her than Howard did initially.

But the 2022 Fever, being five games worse than the 2021 Dream, have further to go. Just getting out of last place might be seen as an accomplishment; Indiana has been dead-last two years in a row and was eight games back of the second-to-last team in 2022 with a franchise-worst winning percentage of .139.

For now, Kelsey Mitchell is still the best player on this team. She came in at No. 25 on our list of the Top 30 players in the WNBA and was the only member of the Fever to make the list. Boston received one 30th-place vote.

Indiana is not alone with just one representative on the Top 30 list; Chicago, Minnesota, LA and Seattle are in the same boat. However, Chicago’s Kahleah Copper is No. 19, Minnesota’s Napheesa Collier is No. 15, LA’s Nneka Ogwumike is No. 14 and Seattle’s Jewell Loyd is No. 10 — all ahead of Mitchell.

Mitchell can score with any of those players at the pro level, is the second-most prolific scorer of all time at the college level and was once a No. 2 draft pick. So she has the clout of someone higher than No. 25 on our list. But she doesn’t stuff the stat sheet outside of points, which is what hurts her ranking. Last year she was a great distributor though, with a career-best 4.2 assists per game. So she seems to be on her way to stuffing the stat sheet a little more, and that passing ability will be extremely valuable now that she has two other weapons to get the ball to in Wheeler and Boston.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 19 Div I Women’s Championship - Second Round - Ohio State v Central Michigan
Kelsey Mitchell was flat-out dominant at Ohio State.
Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Fever project to one day be Boston’s team, so it will be interesting to see how the No. 1 pick handles her role in Year 1. Will she defer to Mitchell in pressure situations? She’s not the type of player who can create her own shot off the dribble, so she likely won’t have the ball in her hands for game-winning shots anyway. But throughout fourth quarters, will it still be Mitchell’s responsibility to guide the team?

Boston averaged 16.8 points per game during her National Player of the Year campaign (2021-22), but her other three years averaged under 14. She wasn’t asked to be the most prolific scorer in the world in college. We’ll see what kind of numbers she puts up at the next level. She is certainly a capable scorer and even has a 3-point shot, which is sure to improve.

But the most consistent aspect of Boston’s game is her defense. It’s the thing that is most certain to translate to the WNBA. The Fever were last in both offensive and defensive rating last year, so they need to improve in both areas. But it starts with defense. That sets the tone for everything else, and Boston will likely improve the team’s defense a great deal. That means a stronger team foundation, and the ability to get out in transition and have more success on offense as well.

Smith may be the most overlooked player in the league right now. Don’t forget that she was the one who was supposed to turn Indiana’s fortunes around last year, before Boston was even in the picture. While she was unable to pull the Fever out of last place, she had a phenomenal and nearly All-Star-level season, averaging 13.5 points and 7.9 rebounds.

With Mitchell, Boston, Wheeler and Smith, the Fever might actually have a big four. And a team with four legit stars is likely going to compete with anybody. So watch out for Indiana this year.