They sometimes sing at the airport. They dance in their locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. During their infrequent and precious down time, they often hang out together.
Their practices are spirited, with lots of hustle, hard work and vocal encouragement of each other. They are a skilled group that gets better with each game. When they lose, they don’t get too low. When they have won, they don’t get too high.
For so many reasons, the Indiana Fever don’t seem to match their league-worst 5-23 record.
“If you came into our locker room you’d never know (our record),” fourth-year forward Natalie Achonwa said. “We have great spirit, energy, and we have a group of people who enjoy being around each other. And it keeps it light.”
That balance of hard work and humor has kept the Fever going through the toughest season in franchise history. After going 9-25 last year in the wake of Indiana legend Tamika Catchings’ retirement, Indiana scored big in last spring’s draft. But with three rookies, other newcomers, and the loss of third-leading scorer Shenise Johnson to an ACL tear, the young team didn’t see its first win until June 16, 10 losses in.
Yet, they have never stopped working for daily improvement, and that has yielded a few big rewards.
The Fever notched their second win by taking down the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. Two weeks later they toppled the Los Angeles Sparks. Now, coming back from All-Star break this week, Indiana finally has their first winning streak of the year, with victories over Dallas and New York.
“Our record doesn’t show how good of a team we are,” third-year guard Tiffany Mitchell said. “It’s being able to put four quarters together consistently. We are young….it shows in end-of-game situations, as we’ve lost a lot of games towards the end.”
Catchings emphatically agrees.
“We are definitely one of the best teams in the league, despite our record,” she said. “We are a team that never stops working, no matter what the score or what’s going on in the game, we continue to fight.”
And with six games left in the regular season, players are undeterred and unphased by being eliminated from playoff contention.
“We are still fighting,” Dupree said after the Liberty win. “We still have a lot of different ways we can get better and keep growing. We are building for the future right now. There is no need to relax.”
Rebuilding through challenges, with support
The Fever chose dynamic point guard Kelsey Mitchell second in the draft, forward Victoria Vivians at No. 8, and center Stephanie Mavunga with their 14th pick. But though they had the largest haul from the storied 2018 rookie class, that didn’t translate into instant success, for a few reasons.
To begin with, this season was compressed to allow for the FIBA World Championship, which begins in September, meaning that the entire WNBA schedule is played in less time. As a result, every team has seen fewer practice hours, and rookies are often learning in-game.
Achonwa doesn’t envy their predicament.
“It’s a rough year to be a rookie – especially if you’re a point guard like Kelsey; she’s got it hard,” Achonwa said. “Because in a normal season when you have practices, if you have a mistake in a game you get to come back and work on them in practice. But without having any practice this year, and with us and the limited wins we have, it’s more of: ‘you’re not going to learn this game the traditional way.’ That’s hard.”
“So it’s finding a balance of (realizing) that yes, you’re rookies, but you’ve got to grow up quickly. We played our best two games earlier in June because we had a week of practice before that. We played five games in the first eight days of the season. We didn’t get enough plays in. So I commend them: it’s a rough year to be a rookie. Thrown to the wolves to the extreme. Normally they’re thrown to the wolves somewhat, but they’re extra-thrown to the wolves this year.”
Another factor in the rookies’ stunted learning curve is that the level of play in the WNBA has never been higher, and every opponent is a true challenge. Coach Pokey Chatman said the newcomers have adjusted well, despite the tough circumstances.
“It’s the best basketball around the world,” Chatman said of the league. “No one’s going to feel sorry for the rookies; they’re going to get their heads beat in. ‘Put some ice on it, bounce back and get better.’ There’s no time to wallow in sorrow, and this group hasn’t. If you saw this group in the gym you wouldn’t know (about our record) because of their enthusiasm and how hard we’re working.”
“But we’re taking it one game at a time, and getting (everyone) to be comfortable playing different roles.”
A third obstacle, unique to Indiana, is that they are guard-heavy. This leaves the lion’s share of the paint work to Achonwa, who is not a center.
“We’ve been undersized for a minute as far as the Fever organization,” Tiffany Mitchell said. “I think we combat that by playing hard. We hang out hats on trying to outwork people, knowing we’re pretty small. Getting loose balls, doing the small things. People know that on this team, in order to get wins, we have to have heart.”
Issues arise in particular when 6-3 Achonwa is trying to guard reigning league MVP Sylvia Fowles, or Brittney Griner or Liz Cambage – both of whom are 6-9.
“That’s a building moment for us,” Achonwa said. “In situations where we’re mismatched, I need the guards to come help me. That’s something we’re growing at, because we don’t have that down. But all I can do it work hard. Being undersized I try to get deflections, I try to tip the ball when I can. A lot of it is trying to out-hustle opponents.”
The sophisticated scouting that teams employ now has also made the rookies’ jobs harder.
“People watched what they can do in the college game, so they know Tori’s a great catch-and-shoot player; they know that Kelsey going to try and get to the basket and she can shoot the three; and they know Stephanie’s going to get the boards for us,” Dupree said.
“They’ve each got to continue working on their games. All three of them are really coachable, so they’ve just got to keep being aggressive. They need to keep doing what they’re doing, but learn a lot along the way.”
Flashes of the team’s potential have appeared more and more as the season continues. And despite being often beat by double-digits and called “lowly” and “league-worst” in headlines, Indiana players remain upbeat. Chatman is especially impressed with that spirit in the rookies.
“With them having to learn under the lights hasn’t deterred their enthusiasm, and that speaks to the character of their hearts,” she said. “They’re high-caliber players. Then, our returning players have been wonderful. When you talk to them you get a sense of how good our veterans are in showing them the way. The rookies are going to be special players.”
The mentoring starts with Dupree, whom the young players refer to as “Mama Candice.” Achonwa chips in, and jokingly refers to herself as “the strict parent.” Johnson comes to practices, travels with the team and “gets in their ear,” according to Chatman. Point guard Erica Wheeler also lends a hand, as has Cappie Pondexter since the franchise signed her July 1.
“Candice is the backbone of the vets. She’s really helping us,” Mavunga said. “That’s Mama right there; she really takes care of us on and off the court. She makes sure we’re doing alright and that nobody messes with us.”
“All the other vets do a good job too, and even though Shenise isn’t playing right now she’s always making sure we’re doing good, asking questions, pushing us to our limits. EW is always making sure we know the plays, and is always on us. And then Nat, especially for my position that helps…..anytime I have a question about what I need to do, she can always answer it. She’s always really patient with me.”
All Fever players also meet regularly with Catchings, who is the director of player programs for Pacers Sports and Entertainment. She sometimes pops into practice, but talks with athletes individually to discuss a variety of player development topics.
“Tamika meets with all of us; we have different groups,” Achonwa said. “The rookies have them more frequently. We have a rookie group and a second-year group. Then we have a 3-5-year group and then we have the grandmas.”
Mitchell is grateful for the opportunity to learn from one of the legends of the game.
“Coach Catch just took us under her wing,” Mitchell said. “She definitely sets the bar high, and I appreciate her.”
Chatman said the rookies’ “never say die” approach has lifted the entire team.
“We haven’t enjoyed getting our asses kicked, but a lot of (the upbeat spirit of the team) is because of the mindset and attitude of these rookies,” Chatman said. “They’re unbelievable. It’s tough, but it’s fun. They’re working hard.”
Rookies in the lab, for the future
Mitchell finished her college career at Ohio State No. 2 on the Division I career all-time scoring list. She is known for her fearlessness in slashing to the basket and for creating scoring opportunities for herself. She has approached her new professional career thoughtfully and deliberately.
“Day to day, the team needs someone who can put the ball on the floor and drive it, who can shoot the ball really well,” Mitchell said. “Knowing personnel is really big for me, offensively and defensively. Knowing I can go up against someone like (Atlanta Dream forward) Elizabeth Williams, and knowing that defensive stance and then switching to a person like (Atlanta Dream guard) Tiffany Hayes. I have to know my personnel, and that tells me my do’s and don’ts.”
Mitchell was coached by her father, Mark, throughout college. He taught her to be a student of the game, and to play intelligently.
“A lot of preparation has gone into how I think and how I play,” Mitchell said. “I grew up playing with guys, and my dad put me in an atmosphere where it was rough and rugged, so it made it second-nature for me, where I don’t have to think about it so much.”
Mitchell is always seeking improvement.
“There’s always something to get better at, and right now it’s reading and being able to come off the ball screens. (passing) and taking an extra dribble,” she said. “Defensively, it’s ball screens, because I’m getting hit a lot. It’s just different because it’s harder. Defenses are more effective (on her) at this level.”
Mitchell was a starter for the Fever for the first third of the season, and had some strong performances. When veteran Pondexter was signed, Mitchell’s role became that of a reserve, where she is just as effective. She averages 12.8 points per game, behind only Dupree.
Vivians, who led Mississippi State to two consecutive National Championship games, had a different path in that she began the year coming off the bench and worked her way into a starting role. She is averaging 8.5 points per game shooting 40 percent from both the two- and three-point lines.
Coming into the WNBA was rough at first, however.
“I felt like I was starting all over again,” Vivians said. “At Mississippi State I kind of did everything. Right now I’m a shooter, and they’re telling me to shoot it. We’re also trying to play better defense.”
Like Mitchell, Vivians has tried to get to know both her teammates and opponents.
“I feel like I’m working day by day, trying to get to know what people are doing and how they play,” she said. “Getting used to the skill level and knowing how to play people, and how they want to play you.”
Mavunga, who was a Buckeye with Mitchell, said she also has learned that she doesn’t have to shoulder such a heavy load.
“I don’t always have to look to score,” Mavunga said. “One thing that is constant, though, is the rebounding aspect, so I know I have to get rebounds. In that sense I still have the same role, getting on the glass, crashing the boards and trying to get us shots. On offense I don’t have to score as much; I can pass the ball.”
Chatman is particularly impressed with the development of Vivians.
“I’m really proud of the way she is playing,” Chatman said. “We have challenged her a few times defensively this year, and she has stepped up and accepted what we’re thrown at her. She’s not just a shooter. She’s got a real demeanor about her, an attitude, she’s feisty. She’s become someone we really trust on the defensive end.”
Not only did the newcomers bond from the beginning, but so did the team. At the beginning of the season, when they were losing, they made concerted efforts to attend events together.
No playoffs this year means another high draft pick or two next spring for Indiana. And though they’ve had a rough entry into the WNBA, the rookies are eyeing the big picture clearly.
“We’re seeing progress,” Mitchell said. “We can see in the future how it’s going to go. It’s all about the progress.”
Vivians has never lost her optimism.
“I feel like we’re building something,” she said. “We’re going to get it. The sun is going to come out after the storm.”