July 3, 2020 

‘Our group is hungry’: Indiana Fever look eagerly to 2020 season

Low turnover, rookies tailor-made for their roles and a key comeback player — the Fever are ready to give an uncertain season their best shot

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Indiana Fever forward Candice Dupree (4) warms up before the WNBA game between the Indiana Fever and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 28, 2019. (Chris Poss)

As injuries, opt-outs, late signings and other player movement make news around the WNBA leading up to the proposed late-July season tipoff, the Indiana Fever find themselves in something of a privileged place.

Nine players return from last season’s roster, and more importantly, the indication — pending medical evaluation, including testing for COVID-19 — is that the entire team will make the trip to Bradenton, Florida next week to start preparing for the 2020 season.

“We went straight to our leaders, Candace Dupree, Erica Wheeler, Natalie Achonwa, and asked, ‘Look, what are you guys planning on doing?’” Fever general manager and vice president of basketball operations Tamika Catchings told the media on Thursday morning. “They want to play.”

And every Fever player, it seems, has an incentive to do so.

Dupree, Wheeler and Achonwa all bring five-plus years of experience apiece to a young team that could benefit from their guidance. Kelsey Mitchell, still carving out a comfortable place on the team entering her third season, will have the freedom to do a lot more shooting this season.

Tiffany Mitchell and Stephanie Mavunga look to solidify their roles off the bench as their careers progress. Teaira McCowan and Kennedy Burke aim to build off strong rookie seasons. Victoria Vivians, coming off an injury that sidelined her in 2019, is in position to make a splash right away in her return — and the team needs it.

As for rookies Lauren Cox, Julie Allemand and Kathleen Doyle, they just want to play in their first WNBA games.

“Our group is hungry, they’re ready to go,” said head coach Marianne Stanley. “We have a group that really feels like it has something to prove… we’re a team that believes in us.”

That belief stems not just from their talents on the basketball court, but from the ideals they share as people off the court. The unique scenario that teams will find themselves in while inside the “bubble” at Bradenton’s IMG Academy has sparked conversations about how teams will be able to collectively use their platforms to raise awareness of social injustices.

It’s a task the Fever have already taken on this offseason. In early June, the team appeared in a video in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for change and action rather than silence:

Catchings expressed a desire to keep this movement alive in Florida and described her excitement at the opportunity the players will have — and, of course, have already utilized — to draw the public’s attention to the causes they believe in.

“The players banded together, they got together and put together a video that they wanted to put out,” she said. “We’ll be doing more things as we look at the upcoming days, upcoming weeks, as we get down to Florida.”

Stanley echoed Catchings’ optimism, specifically as it relates to who is doing the changemaking in the Fever organization.

“I think oftentimes the catalysts for change and the catalysts for society advancing are young people, and our young people are part of that,” she said. “It’s a really important time in our history and in our country, and I’m thankful that we’re gonna have this platform and this opportunity to present women’s basketball at its best.”

‘A good foundation’

Looking back at a 13-21 season, the Fever’s 2019 mantra seemed to be “almost, but not quite.”

It was their best record since 2016, which was the last year they went to the playoffs, but in 2019 they finished in ninth place, two games out of the hunt. They had a prime Rookie of the Year candidate in Teaira McCowan, but she just wasn’t needed to the extent that would have garnered her a place in what ended up being a two-woman race to the prize.

One bright spot, though, was Erica Wheeler’s full-circle journey from going undrafted in 2013 to being named MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game. The Fever’s floor leader made a name for herself on that stage as a standout 3-point shooter, but on offense, she’s a threat all over — as a ball handler and strong passer with the ability to create her own scoring opportunities.

Achonwa and Dupree complete the veteran trio that Stanley, in her first season as the Fever’s head coach, hopes will guide the team back to its former championship glory.

“I think it’s important that we have a good foundation, and I think we’ve got obviously a number of people returning from last year,” she said. “We are a relatively young team. I mean, if you take that leadership off the top, we’re a really young team, so I think the blend is nice.”

The Fever’s list of younger players stars Kelsey Mitchell, the fourth and final returning regular starter alongside Wheeler, Achonwa and Dupree. After an Ohio State career that ended with her as the second-leading career scorer in Division I history, Mitchell was suddenly called upon to run a slower offense with a rebuilding Indiana team.

This season, though, she has a chance to go back to more of a high-volume shooting approach to her game.

“I told her that this is gonna be her year,” Catchings said. “She’s gonna have to come out and play with the confidence that we know that she is capable of having.”

Added Stanley, “I’m most interested in having her be a consistent, go-to scoring guard for us. So, whether you make or miss your first couple of shots, you keep playing and you keep believing in your ability. I know Kelsey has a good belief in her ability.”

Embracing the learning curve

As far as the landscape of the WNBA in 2020 goes, there’s plenty of room for things to be less certain for the Fever. Unlike the New York Liberty, for example, whose roster sports seven rookies and a first-time head coach, Stanley has prior head coaching experience, and both the Fever’s rookies and sophomores appear to be an encouraging fit with the team.

Indiana’s rookie class is highlighted by Cox, the No. 3 overall draft pick, who figures to see time alongside Teaira McCowan as she enters her second year in the league. When it comes to Cox, Stanley said she expects her to be a “really good partner” in the post, including and especially with McCowan.

“I think that Teaira’s game can be elevated by the presence of everybody out there, but in particular with Lauren,” she said. “They’re both young, they’re both going to grow together. And I think Teaira really can step up and have an even bigger impact this season than she did a year ago.”

UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT/USA – June 27, 2018: Indiana Fever guard Victoria Vivians (35) during a Fever vs. Sun WNBA basketball game at Mohegan Sun Arena. (Chris Poss)

Vivians’ return from injury should also reinvigorate the Fever’s offense, which last season saw them finish in the middle of the pack in almost all areas. Her return to pro basketball came in eight games with Israel’s Maccabi Bnot Ashdod this winter, during which she averaged 13.9 points and 7 rebounds. The team won all eight games with her in the starting five.

The Fever are hoping for a similarly immediate impact as Vivians rejoins the WNBA this summer.

“She’s a lot more versatile than you think, let’s put it that way,” Stanley said. “And we’re looking to build on that, and incorporate her into the team. I don’t have any doubt that she’s going to have significant, significant minutes for us and play a big role for us.”

Elsewhere in the Indiana backcourt, moving Kelsey Mitchell to a more consistent shooting guard role leaves an opening for the rookies Allemand and Doyle to get reps at the point behind Wheeler. With several years of professional experience under her belt, most recently with EuroLeague’s Lyon ASVEL Féminin, Allemand is the go-to second option. Doyle, meanwhile, was named Big Ten Player of the Year with Iowa in 2019-20 and led the conference in assists.

“I’m encouraging them to be more assertive offensively, and to contribute in that way because they’re both more than capable,” Stanley said. “And I think that’s a situation where you can see real growth for the two of them.”

Of course, the volume of youth on this team is notable. And developing so many young players all at once, even in a pandemic-altered version of the league in which a handful of key players from other teams will be absent, won’t be easy.

Still, though, Catchings — who played on the Fever’s last playoff team in 2016 — is hardly ready to back down before this particular fight even begins.

“You see the players improving, and so I’m ready for us to get down there, I’m ready to get into training camp, I’m ready for the season to start, because I think that you guys will really be impressed with the Indiana Fever team that goes onto that court,” she said. “We’re going to be higher than No. 9 for sure.”

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