July 17, 2022 

Rookie report: Six first-year Indiana Fever players discovering rigors of WNBA life

The Indiana Fever have six rookies on the roster this season-how have all of them looked on the court up to the All-Star break?

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Fever are growing. The 2022 season is all about improvement for the franchise and while the team’s 5-21 record doesn’t reflect it, development has been happening in the Circle City.

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Half of the Fever roster is currently first-year players, contributing to the team’s poor record and the emphasis on improvement. Each rookie went straight from collegiate play to the pre-draft process and then into training camp, meaning they haven’t had much time to refresh physically and mentally in months. The All-Star break provided the young Indiana roster with that much-needed time off.

“We have some young ladies that are very enthusiastic and energetic, but this is a culture shock to them,” Indiana Fever head coach Carlos Knox said of the rookies on his team. He said that it can be challenging to get a break at the WNBA level, and the amount of travel can be difficult for rookies to adjust to. The six-day gap for All-Star festivities helped the rookies settle in.

The other challenge for first-year players that Knox mentioned is the increased level of competition. Almost every opponent at the pro level features an All-Star, an Olympian, a league legend, or a combination of all of them. That level of competition, combined with a more demanding schedule, can be hard for rookies.

A moment to breathe was beneficial for Fever rookies, who will all hope to finish the season strong. Taking stock of the Fever’s rookie class is a helpful exercise to get a clearer picture of the team both this season and long-term.

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NaLyssa Smith (No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft)

Smith, the Fever’s top selection in the draft, has been as advertised so far and is firmly in the Rookie of the Year race. She is averaging 13.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per game and has posted seven double-doubles.

The Baylor product has found a groove in Indiana’s last 10 games. Her floor game has improved, which allows the versatile forward to put the ball on the hardwood and get a bucket. But the 3-point shot is what has really opened things up for Smith — she has canned 35.6% of her looks from beyond the arc since returning from an ankle in late May.

Her defense has been impressive, too. When defending the ball, the 6’4 forward uses power and speed to make opponents struggle and her defense off the ball has improved throughout the season. As a result, Indiana’s defense is significantly better with Smith on the court than off.

Smith projects to be a very good player at her best, but she needs to work on her consistency, something she recently admitted when asked about improvement areas.

“Efficiency, consistency. Just becoming more consistent in my craft,” Smith said.

Smith has shot 33.3% or worse from the field eight times this season despite having talent as a play finisher. That’s where her inconsistency is the most obvious at this stage in her career and as she adjusts to the pro game, those off nights will happen less often.

“It took me a minute to adjust to playing every other day, but I feel like I’m finally getting the concept of it,” Smith said.

Emily Engstler (No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft)

Every team could use a player like Emily Engstler.

The New York native is a savant at the little things and has unrivaled toughness on hustle plays. Engstler can go from in your face to diving on the floor in an instant.

After 26 appearances, the defensive side of the ball appears to be the former Louisville Cardinal’s strong suit. She possesses a nearly ideal combination of strength, size and speed to be effective in any defensive situation and her fortitude often pops.

Her positional versatility has aided the Fever in various lineups — she has played both frontcourt positions and found success alongside Smith when the Fever were shorthanded.

On offense, Engstler’s game has some warts. She’s a monster on the offensive glass, but her shooting accuracy is just 37.6% so far this season. And her playmaking skills have yet to fully reveal themselves.

The most jarring issue in Engstler’s offensive game is her finishing ability. She is currently shooting under 50% on shots at the rim, per pbpstats. Bumping that number up to a league-average rate would drastically improve Engstler’s outlook.

“Emily does a great job at practice of preparing herself to play,” Knox said. “As she continues to develop, she’s going to be a very great player for us.”

Lexie Hull (No. 6 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft)

Hull was billed as one of the best outside shooting prospects in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Ironically, through 18 games, that has been the biggest hole in her game.

Hull has been able to get into the lane off the dribble and wiggle her way free away from the play on offense. She has had a positive impact on defense. As a connecting-type role player, she has provided value.

But not all of her drives create an advantage for her team and her shot hasn’t fallen at all — Hull is shooting 21.4% from the field and 14.3% from 3-point range. Even though the Stanford product has found other ways to help the Fever succeed, those numbers have to be better if she wants more minutes and opportunities.

That’s where things are tough. Hull needs more chances to play and grow as a top-six pick. But it’s hard to find her playing time on a team with many other first-year players when her shot isn’t falling. So Knox will have to find the right balance of minutes for Hull down the stretch.

However, the 6’1 guard hasn’t played in over two weeks with a right wrist ailment and is considered day-to-day by the team. “For the most part, it’s minor,” Knox said of the injury. Perhaps Hull could return to action soon, but she still has a brace on her wrist.

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Indiana Fever guard Lexie Hull shoots in a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 20, 2022. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Queen Egbo (No. 10 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft)

Many were surprised when the Fever chose Egbo with the 10th overall selection, but the Baylor product has exceeded her draft slot so far. She even made our midseason All-Rookie team here at The Next.

What makes Egbo a boon for Indiana is her mobility. The Fever haven’t had a mobile big in years and Egbo has shown why that player archetype is so valuable. Her advanced defensive numbers — a 4.7% block rate and a 2.1% steal rate — are both excellent and the red and blue have been far better defensively with Egbo on the court than off.

On offense, the 6’4 center has provided most of her value diving to the basket. But she has found a way to get to her spots more of late and it’s not uncommon to see Egbo fire up a jumper or two from the elbow every game. She’s shooting over 47.8% across her last 10 games.

Her defensive instincts and speed will be valuable for the Fever long term. Rim protectors are important pieces on successful teams and Egbo can fill that role for Indiana for seasons to come, especially if her offensive game improves.

“She’s a huge presence for us down low. She protects the rim and she rebounds at a high level,” Knox said of Egbo earlier in the season.

Khayla Pointer (No. 13 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, acquired midseason)

The Fever added Pointer midseason and she has hit the hardwood for just 25 minutes of game action to date. It’s hard for Indiana to get Pointer on the floor in a crowded backcourt, especially with fellow rookie Destanni Henderson deserving of minutes as the reserve point guard. But in Pointer’s limited action, she has impressed with her ability to handle the ball and get to the cup.

Pointer’s free throw rate is currently 200%, a stat that reflects both the small sample size in which she has played and her ability to attack the paint and draw contact. Indiana should try to find her opportunities down the stretch.

“Just her confidence. Really learning the system, learning other players on this team,” point guard Danielle Robinson said of Pointer’s growth since joining Indiana. “That’s what it’s about, coming in and doing what you can with the minutes that you’re given. And I think she’s done a good job with that.”

Destanni Henderson (No. 20 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft)

Henderson has had a fascinating rookie season in that it has felt like two totally different seasons.

The South Carolina product slipped to the 20th pick in the 2022 draft, but the Fever stuck her in the rotation right away. At first, Henderson thrived as a shooter in that role.

From the start of the season through the end of June, “Henny,” as she is often called, shot 48.7% on outside shots and slid through opposing defenses to create opportunities for Indiana. Often, she was Indiana’s best source of bench scoring.

Throughout the season, though, defenses began to adjust to Henderson’s shooting and pressured her more with the ball. Now, in what can be described as part two of her rookie season, the Florida native has had to find ways to be effective that aren’t just as a shooter and attacker.

Henderson’s game management skills have improved in recent battles — her turnover numbers are down — and her defensive ability has improved at a similar rate. She has been a reliable backup for the team in the Circle City and could grow into more.

“She’s learning. She’s learning how to flow into the WNBA game,” Knox said of Henderson adjusting throughout the season. “She’s doing a great job of listening and focusing and absorbing some things. But the pace, the speed, reading situations — she’s going to continue to get better at that.”

Each Fever rookie is growing at a different pace and their inconsistencies have played a major part in Indiana’s poor record. But they are all growing together, so while they all have warts in their skillset, they are helping to set a solid foundation for the Indiana Fever.

Written by Tony East

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

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