As a long time NBA fan, making the commitment to following the WNBA has been long overdue.
What better way to embrace the W than embracing their youngest team? After finishing in dead last during the 2021 season the Indiana Fever have brought 4 first round draft picks and 5 total rookies into the 2022 season.
An important note for those like myself who are new to the WNBA, first round draft picks are far less certain of a success story than their male counterparts. The Fever are no stranger to drafting failures. Their top two selections from the previous two drafts Lauren Cox and Kysre Gondrezick #3 and #4 overall respectively, have both failed to secure positions in the WNBA this season.
With the dubious nature of top draft picks and the Fever missing their star player three-time all-star Danielle Robinson who is still finishing her season in the Turkish Women’s Basketball League, I entered my first WNBA game a bit warries.
For a season opener, the Fever were dealt a tough blow opening against former WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics. No matter the league, a prize rookie going head-to-head against an MVP talent is always a learning experience. Whether it was Nalyssa Smith, Queen Egbo, or Emily Engstler the Fever freshmen struggled against Elena Delle Donne. The two-time MVP started off the second half attacking first Smith then Egbo resulting in a pair of baskets and a trip to the charity stripe. Her dominance against this trio of Fever Frontcourt players was routine throughout the night but not disheartening.
Although game 1 was lost very early on as the Mystics ended the 1st quarter with a 16-2 stretch the five rookies still managed to find their moments. Number 4 pick Emily Engstler brought the energy. Coming off the bench Engstler fought for position in the high and mid post. Her post ups lacked success but the aggression to fight for them is encouraging. Without the ball her wingspan played a huge part in her deflecting passes and shoots. Engstler got bullied into the paint by Hines-Allen but maintained mental awareness to keep straight up and deflect the shot.
The WNBA’s #2 overall pick NaLyssa Smith started off slow facing down Delle Donne but heated up as the game went along. In the second quarter Smith squared give and go started by NaLyssa pushing a one-handed bounce pass off the dribble returned to her for an ‘and 1’ basket against the veteran Hines Allen. Later in the third Smith got the better of Delle Donne, beating her to a rebound then spiking the ball off the Mystic’s leg to maintain possession. The rookie forward showed a lot of promise blending forward like rebounding with some guard level ball handling in transition. By the end of her first regular season game as a pro NaLyssa Smith recorded a double-double.
Queen Egbo did little to impact the game, finishing with the second worst single game plus minus. Her athleticism had little room to shine in the first half as the Fever failed to spark up much of a transition game. At half time Indiana had yet to record a single point of a Mystic turnover. In the second half Egbo was able to get into the open court a bit more. Her and Smith project nicely as a quick front court. Egbo also demonstrated some passing chops. In a play that was ultimately broken up, Queen’s pass slipped through two defenders to a cutting Dangerfield.
The second rounder Destanni Henderson often looked to be the fastest player on the court. Driving hard from the right corner under the basket was her specialty. If soon to be Hall of Fame coach Marianne Stanley is able to find someone to penetrate when Henderson collapses the defense the Fever offense could really click.
Only Lexie Hull failed to have a positive moment. She did survive a bit of a “wobble” off a Natasha Cloud move which initially dropped her however the #6 draft pick was able to get back in the play. Her 7 minutes of action was the fewest of the five rookies.
Of the veterans, Kelsey Mitchell dropped a quiet 17 points broken up throughout the night. Tiffany Mitchell had a lapse in communication on defense bound to have her on the wrong side of a backdoor cut highlight. The long tenured Fever was quick to make up for it, getting a few solid off ball cuts of her own in. The Fever had a pair of runs in the second half led by Victoria Vivians and Crystal Dangerfield but were never able to break through the Mystic’s advantage downlow.