For the first time in franchise history, Indiana Fever has won the WNBA draft lottery and has the top pick overall. To say that this election and the upcoming season is crucial for Fever as an organization would be a gross understatement. Things have been difficult in Indy to say the least since WNBA legend Tamika Catchings retired.
It’s poetic justice that Kelsey Mitchell, a beacon of positivity for the fever in this recent era, was at ESPN’s Bristol studios to accept the pick and represent the team.
“I felt compelled to take on this responsibility on behalf of my team. For me it was a step in the right direction to leadership and to lead the team in the years to come. Achieving that first place is a step in the right direction of change…it adds to our resume to turn things around,” — Fever star Kelsey Mitchell.
While the Fever endured a rough season, there were silver linings in the background.
NaLyssa Smith, the 2nd overall pick in the 2022 draft, looks like a star and scoring champion-to-be. Her mix of size, physicality, fluidity and scoring touch is rare. Her off-archery shooting had progressed further than expected over the course of the season. She finished the season at 38.1% from deep, taking and making more three-pointers in one season as a pro than her entire four-year Baylor career, and with greater efficiency.
Emily Engstler, the 4th overall pick in the same draft, displayed a budding do-everything ability. your defense in love. She has an effective and eye-catching passing game in her pocket. Queen Egbo was later selected with the 10th pick and assembled impressive plays, noticeably improved offense and potentially dominant rim protection. Destanni Henderson showed real cunning and skill as a pick-and-roll playmaker and dynamic pacemaker off the bench.
The 6th overall, Lexie Hull, struggled to find her shot earlier in the year. Adjusting to the length and athleticism of the WNBA is a different acclimatization process for each prospect, which Mitchell is referring to.
“It’s as easy as going from the collegiate line to the pro line. There’s so much that the people who judge and criticize don’t understand, like the lows to take to get a full understanding at the pro level. A lot is misunderstood. It’s not easy, it just takes time.”
Mitchell believes Engstler and Hull can be real X-Factors to Fever in the upcoming season and in the immediate future with their connecting play. She sees the potential for Smith and Egbo to dominate the inside lay paint while also being able to reverse the ground and play from the outside in with their hand and face up play ability.
The potential is brimming.
A focus of this season has been finding her own potential as a leader and developing into a more experienced role, despite barely reaching her prime and only turning 27 last week. A foot injury late in the year shortened her year but she insisted she wanted to stay with the team and be involved. She signed a multi-year extension ahead of the 2021 season and wants to be in Indy. She wants to help shape and lead the team to new heights.
The injury prevented her from completing a career season worthy of All-Star consideration. Mitchell improved as a playmaker, continues to slow down the game, and has become one of the best pick-and-roll players and half-court scorer in basketball. But the injury, the first of her pro career, brought with it a forced perspective that Mitchell finds beneficial.
“It was a big thing for me. I think mentally and psychologically it was a calm button that I needed, a blessing in disguise,” Mitchell says.
Of course, nobody wants to get hurt, but it forced her to take some time off and stay away from the game, something she hadn’t done since her days at Ohio State. She is refreshed and excited to be back on court with Athletes Unlimited in late winter/early spring.
Christie Sides was named the Fever’s head coach last week, a former assistant during Pokey Chatman’s tenure on the Indiana sidelines. Mitchell and Sides overlapped when she was drafted in 2018 and she is eager to play for them and take the next step together as a team.
Sides took Mitchell under her wing when she came in as a rookie.
“She’s a no-nonsense person,” Mitchell says.
“As much fun as she wants to have, she’s one of those guys who will get into the culture early on in the game. She will make sure everyone is held accountable.”
As Fever look to find and shape an identity in the coming season, that accountability and attention to detail will be vital. The Fever are young but they are talented and they expect to continue to improve in this number one division. They have a small number of roster spots but substantial cap space for the ever-approaching off-season.
As Indiana seeks to take the next step toward competitiveness and secure a place in the W, Kelsey Mitchell will no doubt be at the forefront of her pivot.
For the full interview with Kelsey Mitchell, see They’ve Got Now, a podcast hosted by W writer Mark Schindler. Apple | Spotify
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler continues a column WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.