February 4, 2023 

Indiana Fever forming an identity in free agency with Erica Wheeler and Maya Caldwell signings

The Indiana Fever made their first moves of 2023 free agency this week by bringing in Erica Wheeler and Maya Caldwell

The Indiana Fever are in their first full free agency period under General Manager Lin Dunn and Head Coach Christie Sides. The franchise is in the process of forming its team into the image of its front office and sideline decision-makers.

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While much of the Fever’s current roster structure was determined last season when they drafted seven players in the 2022 WNBA Draft, the identity of that group never really formed. It can take a while for a new-look unit to mesh, and Indiana went through two coaching changes since the draft. That’s why the early portions of the 2023 free agency period has been about acquiring players that fit the Fever’s new desired identity — they want to be dogs.

“There’s one word — and sometimes people like it, sometimes they don’t — dog. I mean, these guys, all of them, will get out and they’ll defend and that’s what we are going to do this year,” head coach Christie Sides told The Next earlier this week. The team’s new head coach was buzzing about Indiana’s new additions inside the Fever’s facilities. “You have to defend to be on this team.”

Dunn and the Fever set out to add talent to the roster in this free agency period. The franchise is hoping to be closer to, or in, the postseason in 2023. That’s why they want to set an identity. It will help the younger group that is set to add two first-round picks in the upcoming draft improve and stabilize.

After sending away Danielle Robinson via trade in mid-January, the Fever had a need at point guard. Not only is having talent at the lead ball handler spot important, but that position typically is a pace and culture setter on the hardwood. For a team that is forming an identity, adding a player that can share floor general duties with emerging young guard Destanni Henderson was a must.

That’s why Indiana brought in veteran Erica Wheeler with their first signing. Wheeler is a scrappy, seven-year veteran with playoff experience. The 31-year-old guard spent four seasons with the Fever from 2016-19 and made the WNBA All-Star team in 2019. Her resume is impressive.

Wheeler and Sides overlapped with the Fever in the late 2010s and then again last season with the Atlanta Dream. Wheeler started 30 games for the Dream last year and averaged 8.4 points and 3.4 assists per game. Her efficiency dipped compared to earlier seasons in her career, but Wheeler defended well and kept things organized on offense. Atlanta’s net rating was 1.59 points per 100 possessions better with Wheeler on the court this past season, per pbpstats.

Erica Wheeler is instant energy,” Sides said. The head coach noted that Wheeler grew as a leader in 2022 and improved her ability to positively express her emotions. That made her a massive part of the Dream’s impressive culture, a necessary trait that adds to Wheeler’s on-court value.

“When I got this job and [Wheeler] was an unrestricted free agent and one of the better point guards out there, there was no question,” Sides said of the signing. “She’s going to come in and really light a fire in our locker room, which I think is going to be great.”

At this stage, it isn’t clear if Wheeler or Henderson will start games for the Indiana Fever. They could split minutes or play based on matchups. Either way, improved point guard play will behoove Sides’ team this season, and both players share a “dog” mentality.

One day later, Dunn made the second signing of free agency for Indiana’s team by bringing in Maya Caldwell. The young, off-ball guard is fresh off of a productive rookie season.

Atlanta Dream off-ball guard Maya Caldwell drives from the key as Connecticut Sun point guard Yvonne Anderson side-shuffles to stay in front of her
Atlanta Dream guard Maya Caldwell (33) during the WNBA game between the Atlanta Dream and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA, on May 01, 2022. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

With Atlanta during her first campaign, Caldwell was excellent in nine appearances. She dropped in 10.9 points per game while shooting 51.4% from the field and 56.3% from deep. Her efficiency numbers were sky-high as her true shooting percentage reached over 64%. She was an offensive weapon for the Dream, where Sides was an assistant last season.

The young wing/guard hybrid is more talented on offense than defense, but she battles. The Dream scored with ease with Caldwell on the court last year, and she worked her way into seven starts for the franchise.

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“She’s a killer. Like a silent killer,” Sides said of Caldwell. There’s another note about mentality. The 24-year-old was actually drafted by the Indiana Fever in the third round of the 2021 draft. “She came in; she won games for us. She guarded the best players on the opposing team. She’s got a lot to prove.”

Caldwell could slot in on the wing or as an off-ball guard, depending on what the Fever need. Behind Kelsey Mitchell, Caldwell will compete with Lexie Hull and the newly-acquired Kristy Wallace for minutes.

“Everybody that we go to and play, and that comes in this house (Gainbridge Fieldhouse), they know it’s going to be a hard night for them to get what they need to get to try to beat us,” Sides said of the Fever’s signings so far. She wants defense and culture to be a strength for the team this season. “The W column will fall in line because we are going to have… a winning culture here. Those three (Wheeler, Caldwell, Wallace) are huge for us.”

The Indiana Fever still have some salary cap space to play with — over $400k, per Her Hoop Stats — and have 12 players under contract, including training camp deals. Dunn and company could still add some players as free agency progresses. If they do, they will need to be able to defend and fit into the culture that Sides is looking to build in Indiana.

Other Indiana Fever team updates

1 – Kristy Wallace wasn’t signed by the Fever as a free agent but rather acquired in the Robinson trade. Between Wallace, Wheeler and Caldwell, the Fever have added three players from the 2022 Atlanta Dream, where Sides was an assistant coach.

“She’s the kind of player that if you have several of her on your team, you are going to be successful because she is the hardest worker. She’s tough,” Sides said of Wallace.

2 – On top of the additions listed above, the Fever brought back Rennia Davis, Chelsey Perry and Khayla Pointer on training camp contracts. Davis and Pointer spent some of the 2022 season with the Fever and Perry was with the franchise in 2021. Perry had her contract suspended last year as she rehabbed from a torn ACL.

All three players will compete for the spot on the Fever’s regular season roster with some Indiana draftees and any other free agency signings the team may make.

Indiana could still use more wing depth as free agency progresses, but given that the front office has two first-round draft picks coming in April, they do not need to rush into any deals. The Fever will be careful to add players who they think can fit their culture. For now, though, they have gotten off to a strong start to the offseason.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

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