May 17, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever have had a few down years in a row, but with new talent, a new head coach and new focuses, the team is ready to take off

INDIANAPOLIS — If the Christie Sides-led Indiana Fever are going to have one thing, it’s going to be energy.

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The Fever have been a lot like a kid on Christmas morning in training camp this year. There is palpable excitement and eagerness. Every emotion is shown visibly. In the basketball sense, things have been loud and competitive, yet there is a focus on the details and minutiae that doesn’t detract from the giddy atmosphere.

Energy can mean many things, and it has been a buzzword for Fever players and coaches in recent weeks. “The energy is huge in here,” second-year forward NaLyssa Smith said after the first day of training camp on April 30. She said, through a smile, that it gets her excited to play every day.

The newly-signed Erica Wheeler agreed. “The energy is great,” she said of the team last week. Wheeler noted that it’s important for the team to maintain that energy, especially since it’s something that Sides has valued in the past. During previous stops in Atlanta and Indiana, Wheeler played under Sides while she was an assistant coach.

When the Indiana Fever scrimmage, they talk constantly to communicate, which adds to the energy. That may seem like a simple thing that every team does, but it’s significantly more obvious for the Fever this year than it was in past seasons. On more than one occasion, Sides has stopped a play or drill altogether because one player didn’t call out a defensive coverage, or if they did, it wasn’t at a high enough volume. Talking is a must in the Fever’s training camp.

There’s been encouraging moments of confidence, especially during free throw drills. An emphasis on transition play has naturally led to a setting that looks more energetic. There’s more running by default. All of these little things add up to a contagiously lively Indiana team.

The Fever finished last season with seven rookies on the roster, and it appears that bringing back many of them led to increased chemistry. That, combined with Sides’ style, has created a situation where the mood is top-notch.

The franchise hopes this feeling will translate to the court and, more specifically, to wins. Sides’ coaching style might feature a lot of energy, but her philosophy is all about defense. That’s been a focus for the team almost every day, at least in the media-visible portions of training camp.

They rotate, discuss when to switch or deploy a different coverage and fight on the glass. They focus intensely on transition defense and getting back, never moping or being indecisive about when to run. Transition play, in general, is encouraged and emphasized. The young Fever team is building a habit out of running.

They’re loud in many ways. In decibels, the team is loud, but their play style could also be described in that way. After every practice, the team circles up and gives shoutouts to someone who had a notable day or big moment, and they loudly proclaim “shoutout to [person who is praised],” before clapping — you guessed it — loudly three times.

It’s all a part of the team getting better and lifting each other up. Those goals have led to the second most common phrase from the Indiana Fever so far this season, “pour into each other.” Players and coaches want to be uplifting and share their emotions and lessons. For a younger team, that environment has been perfect.

The Indiana Fever near the end of the first day of training camp. Photo Credit:  Tony East/The Next.
The Indiana Fever near the end of the first day of training camp on April 30. Photo Credit: Tony East/The Next.

Sides described the exercise that led to “pouring in,” becoming a theme by saying, “I went into our team meeting… we just wanted to eliminate any type of bad feelings or things from the past that doesn’t affect any of us. So we just kind of started with a glass of some dirty water and we all just talked about what it was going to take and that was for everyone to pour into each other,” Sides said. “Coaches pour into the players and each other. And so we just took that dirty glass of water and poured in our clean water. And you know, the dirty water just comes out and you’re left with a clean glass of water. That’s where we are. We’ve got our clean glass of water.”

Now, that’s all anyone can talk about. Whether it’s advice, guidance, or teaching, the Fever are pouring into each other. Maybe it is explaining to a rookie where the weight room is. Perhaps it is detailing a better way to defend a certain action. At the lowest level, it’s uplifting a teammate who missed a shot. From the beginning of the day to the end, the Fever want to pour into each other.

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All of these intangible things have led to a competitive training camp, and that’s exactly what Sides hoped for. None of it will matter if it doesn’t sustain throughout the season, though, or if it doesn’t lead to victories.

The Fever will need to stay the course all season. The team wants to play fast and defend at a high level, but they know it will be choppy at first. That is to be expected with so many first-and second-year players. Hurdles will come.

The important thing, and the factor that will define the 2023 Indiana Fever season, is how the team pushes through those rough moments. While there is more roster stability than last season, there are still numerous new players, a new head coach and a new style. That newness may not lead to instant success. It will be important for the team to remain energetic and not forget about pouring into each other.

It’s also possible that some of the new things will elevate the team. The defensive focus certainly will, Indiana has ranked last in defensive rating three years in a row, and that streak is only broken by an 11th-place finish in 2019. Growth on the less glamorous end is needed.

A fresh face that should be of assistance is Aliyah Boston, the rookie center who the Fever drafted first overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft. Boston finished second on Indiana in scoring in its preseason opener and has looked like the team’s best player at times during training camp. Her skill is impressive.

“She’s already got it. She’s a natural. She’s so freakin’ amazing,” guard Kelsey Mitchell said of Boston last week.

On the topic of Mitchell, she has added wrinkles to her game. Her top speed has always been a strength, but this offseason, she worked on decelerating and pace control. That will open up the floor for the near All-Star level guard, especially with more talent around her.

Wheeler is a former All-Star, and she isn’t technically new to the Fever but new to this version of the team. Her leadership alone will provide a boost, as will her knowledge of Sides.

The final new thing that Indiana will be elevated by is a fresh voice in the head coaching role. Sides already commands respect while leading the team to the aforementioned energetic aura. Her personality shines, and those who have played for her before love what she brings to a team.

“She’s so passionate about the game,” wing Victoria Vivians said. Sides coached Vivians while she was an assistant coach during Sides’ first stint with the Fever from 2017-19. Vivians said a passionate coach leads to a passionate team.

After a year of transitions in 2022 — from the general manager to the roster to the head coach, even down to the arena, things feel more settled for the Indiana Fever now. They have all the pieces in place to grow into their next era. With a newness, a contagious energy, a defensive focus and a premium placed on pouring into others, Indiana thinks this could be the year that Fever basketball is re-established.

Written by Tony East

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

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