April 11, 2023 

Inside a franchise-altering WNBA draft night for the Indiana Fever

The Fever program is now in place

INDIANAPOLIS — Recently, Indiana Fever center Queen Egbo was asked what she thought the Fever needed in the WNBA draft.

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“I definitely think we need size. I think we need a defensive presence. I think we need people who are going to come in and get after it,” Egbo told The Next.

It’s almost as if Egbo were describing Aliyah Boston, the South Carolina star who was selected by the Indiana Fever with the first overall pick last night. Boston has size. She has mobility and technique. Her defense, both interior and exterior, is excellent. She is exactly what Indiana needs and is a near perfect fit.

It was a simple choice for Fever General Manager Lin Dunn and her staff. They had the number one overall pick for the first time ever. They were in need of a franchise-changing talent. And there was Aliyah Boston, the premier talent of the draft, ready to be selected.

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Indiana decision-makers went into their war room deep inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse to make the decision. They were tucked away behind the weight room, free from distractions. But when they chose Boston, the many fans inside the arena erupted, and it could be heard from the Fever’s facilities.

“I wouldn’t call it an easy choice, I would say it was an obvious choice,” Dunn said of picking Boston. “There was no one, in my opinion, that was in her league as far as considering for the first pick,” she added, citing many traits of Boston’s on and off the court that the Fever love.

For the Indiana Fever, this pick is significant both for what it represents and the new reality it starts. In reality, the Fever now have added a premier young talent at a needed position. Boston joins a core that features NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Kelsey Mitchell, Egbo, and Erica Wheeler. The Fever are in a new era, and they have many pieces to grow with.

The Boston selection also represents the next step for Fever basketball. They’ve been near the bottom of the standings for years, but they finally have their young talent, head coach, and general manager in place. There are no more interim tags, there’s no more overlap of old and new regimes, and there are no misplaced players. The synergy from top to bottom is improved.

That was clear as Dunn and head coach Christie Sides shared much of the same messaging about why they were excited about the Fever’s picks throughout the night. For example, both of them singled out how much the defensive three second rule, which doesn’t exist in the NCAA ranks, will help Boston on offense. They both promoted positional versatility. Everywhere in Gainbridge Fieldhouse, harmony was evident.

Boston will be a day-one contributor for Indiana. She can work with Mitchell on the perimeter or with Smith on high-low actions. She can help the team grow on defense, an area that they have struggled mightily in recent seasons. Indiana has been last in defensive rating for three-straight seasons.

“I think always we’re looking to play defense. Both Lin [Dunn] and I both believe defense wins championships,” Sides said. “You’ve got to have that aspect of the game. That’s going to be, from day one when they walk in, we’re going to play some defense as they walk in the door.”

The draft, and the Fever’s future, started at number one. But the building continued as the franchise had four more picks in the draft, and they only had roughly a half-hour turnaround before their next selection at number seven. Indiana is used to hectic drafts, and nothing will compare to 2022, when they owned 33% of the first round, but the unknown always makes the quick turnaround between picks tricky.

As the seventh pick approached, there was notable suspense coming from the fans in the arena. That’s because a local star was available, and the Fever ended up picking that player with that pick. They chose Grace Berger from, fittingly, Indiana University. The Fever have been able to watch her often up close since IU is just an hour drive away from Indianapolis, but Dunn made it clear that Berger’s proximity to the Fever had nothing to do with the selection.

“Let me be clear about Grace Berger. We drafted Grace Berger because she’s an exceptional player that can play three positions [and] that’s a fantastic person off the court,” Dunn said. The now-Fever guard shared earlier in the night that she used to attend Fever games growing up.

“I was just really grateful and full of emotion when I heard my name called, especially being there with my dad, who had been taking me to Indiana Fever games since I was six, seven, eight years old,” Berger told assembled media in New York. “It was just two hours up the road from Louisville, Kentucky, where I’m from. We got to go to those games and watch Tamika Catchings, watch Katie Douglas, watch them win that championship. To get called was surreal but to get called by a team you’ve been going to with your dad since you were really little, I think just made it that much more special.”

Sides noted not long after the Berger selection that the team could deploy the 23-year old at any position, one through three. That positional versatility will be valuable for a Fever team with several other versatile smalls. The Fever needed wing depth and a third point guard, and Berger could theoretically fill both needs.

Indiana's Grace Berger. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Athletics)
Indiana’s Grace Berger. (Photo courtesy of Indiana Athletics)

This was the Fever’s first draft with both Sides and Dunn on staff together. They both share many values and basketball beliefs, including putting a premium on defense and culture. Sides was a big part of boosting those abilities for the Atlanta Dream last season. This year, the hope is that those traits trickle down to the Fever roster, and that the newly drafted players can fit in with the franchise.

“I think we’re on the right path to do what we want to do to get this team back on track,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of good things going on now.”

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The Indiana Fever had three more picks after the first round. As has been customary for this organization since their fresh rebuild, the draft is a busy night. Young talent is key for the team from the Circle City.

They were up first in the second round. After another roughly half-hour gap, Indiana’s decision-makers went for an offensive talent by drafting Taylor Mikesell from Ohio State. Mikesell had a terrific tournament run for the Buckeyes and averaged over 17 points per game in her final season in Columbus.

“That’s something that I’ve always liked to pride myself on, my shooting ability and scoring ability,” Mikesell told assembled reporters in New York. “But I’m just excited to get to Indiana and do that, just be me basically. But yeah, I think being a little less athletic, my shooting ability has been something that’s helped offset my lack of athleticism at times, but I’m also just excited to get to Indiana and be a sponge and find ways that I can get better.”

Indiana is assuredly going to have a battle for their final roster spots in training camp after making so many picks, and Mikesell will be in the mix for one of those spots. Her scoring on the wing could provide the Fever with an element they haven’t had in recent seasons outside of Victoria Vivians.

“You’ve got to come out and guard Mikesell,” Dunn said.

To round out the draft, Indiana selected LaDazhia Williams with the 17th pick and Victaria Saxton with the 25th pick — two former NCAA champions. Saxton has a relationship with Boston, of course, as they were teammates with the Gamecocks this most recent season. But even Williams spent some time in Columbia before ending up with LSU this past season. All of the Fever’s picks came from strong collegiate programs.

That may appear to be something small or not noteworthy. But the Indiana Fever are trying to build their own program. They have been laboring near the bottom of the WNBA for a while now, as the standings bear out. But their new era, and their attempt at rebuilding the Fever program, started recently.

Dunn was hired in February of 2022. Sides was brought in last November. At least half, and possibly more, of Indiana’s potential opening day roster was acquired in the last two drafts. It’s all fresh in Indiana as they push through their poor stretch of the last half decade.

The 2023 WNBA Draft could be the turning point that finally pulls the Indiana Fever away from the bottom of the standings. Aliyah Boston is that good, and the other selections are all strong talent and culture fits. The Fever program is now in place.

A little luck helped, too. Indiana finally won the draft lottery for the first time in franchise history, and it set up a draft night the Fever dreamed about. The luck didn’t stop there, either.

“Somebody told me some of those numbers are prime numbers, which are lucky,” Dunn said of her picks. She selected 1, 7, 13, 17, and 25 in the draft, four of which are prime numbers. “Maybe that’s why we got some of the players we wanted. I don’t know anything about that,” she added before some of the gathered media attempted to explain prime numbers.

That’s what the Fever’s draft night was, a grand event that started out by drafting a potential star and ended with those still around discussing division. It was a historic evening for the franchise, and Indiana will hope it all adds up to playoff success.

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this piece.

Written by Tony East

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

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