The Indiana Fever have effectively been rebuilding since Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings retired in 2016, but this season, they will begin a new phase of that rebuild that prominently features Catchings once again. The former MVP and WNBA champion is now Indiana’s lead executive after serving in a VP role the past three seasons. Catchings hired women’s basketball lifer Marianne Stanley to be the team’s head coach this offseason, and added even more young talent to one of the league’s deepest, greenest rosters. They will be challenged to glean much from year one of this new era during a 22-game regular season at the WNBA clean site at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
As with all young teams, however, it’s a trial run for many of the players on the roster. Catchings and Stanley will need to see how the pieces fit, who makes the most of the bizarre 2020 season, and who improves despite the circumstances as they think about the future of the Fever. A few positive COVID-19 tests postponed their arrival in Florida, but they are now in the Wubble and gearing up for July 25.
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Teaira McCowan: It was lost because the 2019 rookie class — led by Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier and NCAA sensation and dynamic scorer Arike Ogunbowale — was so remarkable, but McCowan put together a season that in many seasons would have been worthy of ROY consideration. What’s most fascinating about McCowan though is not her pure skill, but the way she stands in opposition of a changing game. McCowan, like other post stars Joel Embiid and Sylvia Fowles, continue to make a massive impact and survive on the court despite a sport that increasingly asks its bigs to be shooters and play-makers on offense rather than simply post anchors. McCowan didn’t take a single three-pointer in 2019 and no one should expect it in 2020, either. Instead, her strength, footwork, and touch inside make her a wildly efficient post presence whose size and shot-blocking ability mean she could nevertheless be one of the most valuable bigs in the WNBA as soon as this season.
Julie Allemand: This is Allemand’s first year in the WNBA after originally being drafted in 2016. She finally signed a contract to come to the United States this spring, and adds yet another skilled young guard to a jumbled Fever backcourt. Despite others vying for a similar role, both Catchings and Stanley have praised Allemand throughout training camp and discussed a sizable opportunity for the first-year guard. Allemand is coming off a run for the Belgian national team in which she averaged 10 points and five assists per game, powering Belgium to an Olympic qualification. If she’s already earned the trust of the Indiana coaching staff, we not only will get to see a lot of her, but it will play a major part in how the Fever view Mitchell, Mitchell, and Wheeler going forward.
Victoria Vivians: Continuing on the trend of strange new beginnings for the Fever in the Wubble, this will technically be Vivians’ second season, after she missed 2019 with an ACL tear. The former Mississippi State standout and No. 8 overall pick is still likely a major factor in Indiana’s future, but her rookie year was rocky and this is a strange time to be returning from injury. Getting the most out of Vivians is particularly important, however, because she is one of the only perimeter players with size on the Fever roster. At 6’1, she can play the wing, which will help with the team’s backcourt logjam. Expectations for Vivians should be tempered, but we know she can shoot the lights out (40 percent on over six attempts per 36 minutes as a rookie). If she can defend bigger players and round out her offensive game, Indiana’s future becomes so much clearer.
Catchings and Stanley have made clear they see the playoffs as a possibility, but the real focus is on incremental progress. This is what is so fascinating about Indiana: It’s two hyper-competitive, experienced women in the GM and coach seats, running a very inexperienced team. Nobody should underestimate their ability to get the most out of this team, but the future is bright regardless.
Erica Wheeler: Nobody stands to be negatively affected by the Fever juggling minutes among so many guards more than Wheeler, the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game MVP and a Most Improved Player candidate in her fifth season. Wheeler undeniably earned her starting spot on the team, but has always struggled to facilitate at the same level she’s reached as a scorer. Entering a contract year, her role and relationship with the team is worth watching. If all goes well, Wheeler will be in line for a big contract as the cornerstone of the Fever. If not, Indiana could be looking at a disgruntled star, with Wheeler instantly becoming a top free agent in 2021.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
What does the front court look like? Though Indiana needs to sort out its back court, the front court is where the majority of its proven talent is. McCowan will be joined by the versatile veteran Achonwa, the league’s fifth all-time scorer Dupree, and 2020 No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox. The Fever have done a great job balancing out the stable of bigs with players who bring different skills to the table, and what’s most exciting is to see how Cox’s play-making and shooting, even as a rookie, can open up the floor even more for McCowan as Indiana’s front court of the future begins to mesh.