Skip to main content

Editor’s note: The Fever selected Boston with the No. 1 pick in Monday’s WNBA draft.

Fever general manager Lin Dunn was in Dallas for the women’s Final Four when her phone flooded with messages of congratulations. At first, Dunn was unsure what could have happened to make her phone blow up to this degree, but soon it became clear. Aliyah Boston had announced her decision to forgo her extra year of availability at South Carolina and declare for the WNBA draft. With this year’s No. 1 pick, it’s all but certain Indiana will select the former NCAA champion and former Naismith Player of the Year.

“Obviously, we’re very high on Aliyah Boston,” says Dunn. “Have we decided who we’re going to take with the first pick? No, we haven’t. We are going to do our due diligence, and we’re going to do our research, but certainly, she is in the pool of two or three players that we are considering for the first pick.”

Dunn, who came in as general manager after Tamika Catchings stepped down as VP of basketball operations and GM last year, calls the week leading up to the draft “research week.” She and the rest of Indiana’s staff are busy calling agents, setting up interviews with players and speaking with trainers. Having been around the Fever in some capacity for the past two decades, first as an assistant, then as head coach from 2008 to ’14, and now in the front office, Dunn has stuck with the franchise through its ups and downs. After winning the WNBA title in ’12, with a team led by Catchings on the court, the last decade has been a struggle for Indiana. The team hasn’t registered a winning season since ’16, which is also the last time the squad made a playoff appearance. With a new year, though, comes a new opportunity, and the Fever are in the midst of a slow and steady rebuild, naming former assistant Christie Sides as the team’s head coach late last year. The draft allows Sides a fresh opportunity to assert her identity on a team already brimming with young talent.

“I think we lost a little bit of our identity when ‘Catch’ retired because we were always a great defensive team,” says Dunn, who was officially made GM in January after having the interim tag since Catchings’s departure. “We always valued defense. We were always one of the top three or four [teams] in the league in defensive statistics. That went away. That is a piece of our identity that must come back, that must be reinforced. And that was one of the reasons I hired Christie Sides. She values defense just like we did in the past, and I think she is going to set that standard from the get-go.” Sides echoed Dunn’s sentiment saying there will be a “big, huge emphasis on ball pressure” and a focus on toughness, which will hopefully translate to registering stops.

Sides, who served as an assistant for the Fever in 2017 and ’18, coached for the Dream under known defensive tactician Tanisha Wright last season. “When a Fever team steps on the court, you know what to expect; they are going to defend you 24/7,” says Dunn. “They may even guard you coming out of the locker room. We’re looking to recreate that kind of identity.”

Who better to build on that hard-nosed ethos than the reigning Defensive Player of the Year? (Dunn is quick to point out that Boston has won the honor in back-to-back seasons.) Beyond an expected Boston pick at No. 1, Indiana has another opportunity in the first round to obtain elite talent with the draft’s No. 7 selection. Many suspect the Fever could take fellow South Carolina alum Brea Beal if she’s still left on the board. She’d certainly fit in with the mentality the Fever are trying to cultivate as one of the best perimeter defenders available. Another advantage for Boston and the fellow Gamecocks “freshies” entering the draft: their former coach Dawn Staley. “Dawn does such a great job with her program. We know the type of players that she brings into her program,” says Dunn, referencing current Fever player and former Gamecocks guard Destanni Henderson. “When we are looking at a player, who did she play for? Did she play for a coach that is demanding? Anyone that plays for Dawn Staley, that’s a plus.”

Whichever players end up joining the Indiana roster, though, won’t be entering a blank-slate situation. The team’s restructuring has been years in the making. “We are on a restart. I never use the word rebuild because Lin started that last year with adding these great pieces we have,” says Sides.

Last season’s 5–31 record is more promising than the numbers might indicate, with a group of young players putting on some compelling performances despite weathering a coaching swap in May—assistant Carlos Knox took over for Marianne Stanley, who was ousted after the Fever lost seven of their first nine games to start the year. Even amid an 18-game slide to end the season, Sides saw the potential—with the new coach intimately aware of Indiana’s capabilities as she scouted the Fever in her role with the Dream. “You never saw them give in,” says Side. “They were fighting even until the very end.”

Kelsey Mitchell, who was drafted by Indiana in 2018, led the team’s offense averaging 18.4 points and 4.2 assists, spearheading a group of rookies in NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Lexie Hull and Henderson. In an encouraging offseason for the Fever, Smith took home the Athletes Unlimited trophy, with Sides saying the 22-year-old “put on a clinic offensively” during her title run. Meanwhile, Hull clinched AU’s Defender of the Year honors—providing the W newcomers some critical reps ahead of their sophomore season. “Lexie went into that and didn’t know what to expect, and she found her niche,” says Sides. “She was able to get in there and do things that some people just don't want to do, and she did all the little things. I call that dog mentality.”

Sides hopes Erica Wheeler will help shepherd this roster of young stars, which is why the Fever coach pursued the veteran guard so aggressively in free agency. “I had a front-row seat watching her with Naz Hillmon and Rhyne Howard [in Atlanta],” says Sides. “She takes it upon herself, and she wants to grow young people and teach them what it’s like to be a pro and how that feels and what it takes.” With that seasoned presence on the court, Sides is eager to mold what she feels is a group of players, many of whom have yet to reach their full potential. With a new, enthusiastic coach, can this group of similarly young players buy into the relentless, defensive identity Indiana hopes to foster?

Someone like Boston would undoubtedly help as the Fever look to improve upon their last-place defense and 67% defensive rebound stat. Indiana hemorrhaged paint points last year, and having a presence like Boston close to the basket could make a dent in that number, while also helping to cut back on the Fever’s average of 11.3 second-chance points allowed per game. After all, the 6'5" center’s calling card includes, like many of Staley’s five seniors entering the draft, tenacious rebounding on both sides of the court. While Boston certainly has the potential to be a franchise-changing player, Indiana is realistic. It’s called a rebuild for a reason, and these things take time. “We take with the first pick a tier-one player that will be with our program for many years,” says Dunn. “That will take our program to the playoffs; that will be instrumental in the next five to 10 years as we grow back into a championship-level program.”

The Fever will have a pair of dueling superteams to contend with this year in the Liberty and Aces, not to mention solid competition in the likes of the Mystics, which will get to replenish with a No. 4 pick, and the Wings, which added some solid talent in free agency. Recording a winning season would be a good start for Indiana—even registering double figures in the win column would be a commendable leap. Make no mistake, though, that practical mindset isn’t settling, as the Fever likely know the No. 1 pick represents the apex of an overhaul that has long been in the making.

“We want to win games, but it’s going to be a process, and we want to make sure that we are not skipping any steps,” says Sides. “To be successful and have longevity and to sustain success, you can’t skip certain steps, and we won’t.”

All eyes will be on Indiana on Monday as commissioner Cathy Engelbert kicks off the WNBA draft, uttering a now infamous phrase: “With the No. 1 pick, the Fever select …” But for those who have been around the team, it’s clear this one shining moment could be a turning point for the franchise and mark the start of a long road of hard work ahead.