April 12, 2022 

Inside a busy draft night for the Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever had a crazy night as they selected nearly one-fifth of the picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft

INDIANAPOLIS — All was quiet inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, roughly 90 minutes before the start of the 2022 WNBA Draft. The Indiana were slated to make four first-round picks in less than two hours, but nothing felt chaotic inside Fever facilities.

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Interim General Manager Lin Dunn’s phone wasn’t ringing yet. Her tone when speaking was smooth. The sheets of paper filled with information about each draft prospect were in neat, organized piles.

Once the draft neared, though, the calmness was gone. Dunn made it clear that her phone would be ringing often, and between that and having to make one-third of the picks in the first round, Dunn had a lot to manage.

“When you’ve got a big part of the draft like that, you want to win it. And that’s kind of how we went into the draft — we want to win the draft,” Dunn said Monday night. “When you’ve got multiple picks, it’s challenging because you could screw it up.”

The Fever had picks two, four, six, and ten in the first round when the draft started. In Dunn’s eyes, that is many chances to screw up. But there was little chance of anything faulty happening early on, and with the second overall pick, Indiana did what many anticipated and took Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith. Smith is a frontcourt presence that some viewed as the best player in this draft class, and with Rhyne Howard going first overall to Atlanta, Smith was the clear choice for Indiana.

The forward averaged 22.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game for the Bears as a senior and should be an immediate contributor for the Fever, who are light on talent in the frontcourt. “It’s a great feeling,” Smith said of being taken by Indiana. “We have four top picks, so it’s a chance and opportunity for this team to grow tremendously.”

Smith was the expected pick, so nothing wild happened on Lin Dunn’s phone lines yet. However, most knew that this was the direction the Fever would go — Dunn even shared it on a few Indianapolis news broadcasts leading up to the draft. Smith has the talent to be a franchise cornerstone, and Indiana was thrilled to have acquired her.

But there was no downtime for the Fever to celebrate the pick. They had to go back to the board with three more first-round selections. The fourth pick was made before Smith even finished her availability with on-site media personnel — everything was happening so fast, and the Indiana Fever had to keep up.

At that fourth spot, Indiana stood pat and took Louisville wing Emily Engstler, who is regarded as one of the best defensive players in the draft, especially on the perimeter. The ACC All-Defensive team member will bring size and tenacity to the Fever’s point of attack defense, an area where the team struggled tremendously last season while simultaneously adding playmaking on offense. She is a great fit for the Fever’s needs.

“I’m really excited. I think that’s a really amazing opportunity for us,” Engstler shared of joining a young team. “I think me and NaLyssa will work well together.”

The first three draft picks went as many expected it would, but few knew what direction the night would head after the third pick. Engslter was a strong pick for the red and blue to kick off the more complicated part of the draft, but the Fever mainly had stuck to picks that some experts had predicted before the draft.

That was about to change.

“We put a lot of time and effort into preparing for the draft,” Fever head coach Marianne Stanley said. The team was about to show where its preparation differed from what many expected.

With the sixth pick, Indiana took guard Lexie Hull from Stanford. Hull is a very strong shooter at the guard position — she shot 39.2% from the outside in her final season as a Cardinal — and she moves well away from the play, making her a threat even when she isn’t handling the rock. The Fever needed those exact skills, so they snatched up Hull at six.

“The best shooter that I think is on the draft board,” Stanley said of the pick. The Fever ranked dead last in three-point percentage last season and were the only team to shoot under 30% from long-range. “Super, super excited,” the head coach added.

An additional motivation for the Fever in picking Hull where they did is that the decision-makers did not think Hull would be available for selection when the team was up next to pick (in the tenth slot). So with that thinking in mind, Dunn and co. made their move and grabbed her just after the lottery picks.

“We just didn’t see anybody better if we wanted a great shooter,” Dunn said of the pick. “Maybe she was the surprise of the draft, but she wasn’t a surprise to us.”

Despite Dunn saying the pick wasn’t a surprise to her, it was to many outsiders. And that was only the beginning of the surprises coming from the Indiana Fever last night.

Lin Dunn Marianne Stanley Indiana Fever
Indiana Fever head coach Marianne Stanley and interim General Manager Lin Dunn (Photo via The Next)

By this point, the mood in the Gainbridge Fieldhouse was completely different. The draft was going by fast and unpredictably, the perfect combination for a chaotic atmosphere. By the time most had gathered their thoughts about one Fever pick, another was made. There was an energy in the room that was absent just a half-hour prior. And Indiana still had four more picks to make.

Nineteen minutes after selecting Hull, the Fever made another unforeseen move. They took center Queen Egbo, Smith’s college teammate at Baylor, with the tenth pick. Egbo is a mobile big with some defensive chops, and the Fever lacked mobility on the interior in past seasons. But this pick still shocked many very few pegged Egbo as a top-10 talent.

“Another energy player who has size, length, athleticism,” Stanley recounted when talking about Egbo. She described her affinity for Egbo’s ability to keep guards in front of her on defense, especially in pick-and-roll coverages. “[Egbo will] give us a great rebounder, defender.”

Two strong, expected picks that many saw coming followed by two scarcely imagined selections. The Indiana Fever got their favorites.

“I thought we did a good job preparing,” Dunn shared.

At this point, Dunn came in the room where media were stationed — the Fever’s new film room — to share a statement before returning to the war room. But, before sharing her thoughts, she made the statement she really wanted to make.

“Hot Dog!” she shouted when she entered the room. Her tone was much more energetic than it was earlier in the night.

Dunn was amped. A lot of preparation went into that first round, and it was finally over. It was a pivotal four selections for the franchise, and Dunn loved what she pulled off.

“Absolutely thrilled with the picks,” she declared. “Inside help, outside help, all winners. Winner winner, chicken dinner.” Dunn was only in the room to make a statement, but she still fielded a question and shared that she thought things went great in the first round.

“I’ve already had people texting me trying to trade for some of my picks. And when that happens, you know you’ve done a good job,” she added.

Dunn’s cell phone status often summed up the state of the night. Pre-draft, things were mostly tame, but as the draft tempo picked up, so did her phone activity. By now, the Fever had made four picks, one-third of the first round, and people were contacting her hoping to make moves. The Fever still had three more picks in the next two rounds, so the work was far from done.

At this point, the neat stacks of information detailing most of the prospects was obliterated. There was nearly a ream of paper spewed around the room, and there was still more to come. The even faster-paced second and third rounds were about to start, and Indiana still had picks 20, 25, and 34.

At 20, Fever decision-makers made a pick they were stoked about and grabbed South Carolina point guard Destanni Henderson. Henderson is a defensive pest who is full of burst, and she is well known for scoring 26 points in the NCAA tournament title game, a battle in which Henderson’s Gamecocks took down powerhouse UConn. Her full skillset was on display that night.

“We had a group that we were hoping to be able to choose from, and Destanni was right there.” Stanley shared once the draft was complete. “We’re really excited.” Henderson was one of the dozen players invited to the draft, so she was on-site to hear her name called by Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Indiana Fever film room
The room in which media members watched the Indiana Fever make seven draft picks. (Photo via The Next)

More papers were distributed in the film room as another prospect was picked. Few thought Henderson would be available this late in the draft, and the Fever were fortunate to snag her at 20. While the team does have several guards under contract for training camp, Henderson’s defense and tenacity may land her a roster spot.

Dunn still had two more picks to make, both in the third round. With the 25th selection, the Indiana Fever took center Ameshya Williams-Holliday from Jackson State. Williams-Holliday became the first player to be drafted from a historically Black college or university in 20 years, making her a historical selection. Stanley thinks Williams-Holliday has huge upside for the red and blue.

With their final pick, the Fever chose guard Ali Patberg from Indiana — who spent her playing days as a Hoosier just an hour away from Indianapolis. Dunn made the selection in Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the same stadium where Patberg played well in the Big 10 Tournament just one month prior.

“It doesn’t get any better than that to have somebody from IU who can play multiple positions, is versatile, smart, can impact the game,” Stanley shared of the pick.

Finally, the Fever were done. They made just under one-fifth of all the selections in the draft, and they were finally done. No trades were made, just seven draft picks chosen that team brass think have what it takes to help turn around the franchise.

Next to me, in an empty chair, was an incalculable amount of paper. With so many draft picks comes so much information about them. Finally, at this point, some in the room got up to get water or food since it seemed like things were about to calm down again before Dunn and Stanley addressed the group.

Similarly, Dunn’s phone had calmed down. But that was by choice. “I put it on silent,” she shared. “I told y’all when I came in here earlier that I was getting text messages about possible trades for some of my players. We’re not trading these players!” Dunn exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? We got what we wanted to make our team better.”

In her eyes, the Fever won the draft. After answering a few more questions, Dunn, other Fever decision-makers, and a few coaches went over to the draft party taking place on the other side of the stadium. Finally, after a long night, it was time to celebrate and decompress.

“We’re really, really happy with this draft,” Stanley shared. After a busy, record-setting night in which the Indiana Fever became the first team to make four first-round picks in WNBA history, the Fever are cheery. After a handful of losing seasons, the organization hopes that this draft makes them feel just as cheery then as it does now in a few years.

Written by Tony East

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

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