Indiana Fever stay positive amid coaching changes, rookie roster and grueling back-to-back

NaLyssa Smith #1 of the Indiana Fever walks on to the court during the game against the New York Liberty.
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It’s been a busy eight-day stretch for the Indiana Fever, who came home following a five-game losing streak May 25 to news that head coach Marianne Stanley had been let go, with assistant Carlos Knox replacing her as interim head coach.

Two days later, the Fever handed Knox his first victory as Indiana beat Los Angeles on Friday, thanks in part to the return of rookie forward NaLyssa Smith, who missed four games with an ankle injury. And the weekend ended with more news Sunday, when Indiana announced the addition of assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg, who previously served two stints with the Fever (2008-11, 2015-16) and was head coach at Seattle in 2020 when the Storm won WNBA championship.

The team had one day to settle in with the latest development before kicking off a back-to-back at home vs. Washington on Tuesday and in New York vs. the Liberty on Wednesday, with the results nearly identical in 87-75 and 87-74 losses at both.

“One of the things we try to do is we want to make sure that it’s not a big deal,” said Knox of the back-to-back. “Mentally, we want to walk in our skin as a team. You know, we are professional athletes, we’re built for this, we have conditioned our minds and our bodies for this moment.

“When we looked at our schedule at the beginning of the year, these are just some of the things that we’ve looked at. We circled this date and knew that this is going to be one of those tough situations. … It’s just a matter of us showing up and being ready to play together as a team.”

While the scores – and Indiana’s 3-9 record – may not reflect much of a turnaround, recent comments from Knox and his players reveal a renewed mindset for the Fever, who surrounded their new coach in a group hug following their 101-96 win over the Sparks last week.

“It was touching, it was humbling,” Knox said afterward. “Had a lot of family members here, a lot of people that respect my coaching ability. I was very emotional because it felt so heartwarming.”

Guard Kelsey Mitchell, who on Tuesday was named the WNBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the first time in her career, chimed in regarding Knox’s transition, saying, “I think for us, obviously a change in leadership, with no disrespect to Coach Marianne, because I love her as well, but it was good to see him step into [the role] so fast, and we responded fast.”

Added guard Victoria Vivians: “He always said it was his dream to be a head coach on this level. I’m just ecstatic for him and for my teammates. We did it for our team and for him.”

From 2005-16, the Fever set a league record with 12-straight playoffs appearances, including three trips to the WNBA finals, but they haven’t reached the postseason since 2016. To add insult to injury, from 2017-21, Indiana has the distinction of having the worst winning percentage (40-116, .256) of any team in the WNBA, NBA, NFL or NHL.

However, Indiana has poised itself for a turnaround, thanks to changes on the bench and a fresh-faced lineup on the roster, which includes four first-round picks from this year’s WNBA draft: The Fever chose Baylor’s Smith at No. 2, followed by Louisville’s Emily Engstler at No. 4, Stanford’s Lexie Hull at No. 6 and another Baylor product in Queen Egbo at No. 10. Additionally, Indiana grabbed Destanni Henderson, who was just a week removed from helping South Carolina win its second NCAA women’s basketball title, at No. 20.

While so many rookies may sound daunting, it falls right into Knox’s wheelhouse. A player himself with the Indiana Pacers during the 1998-99 season, plus eight years in Croatia, Germany, Venezuela and Italy, Knox spent three seasons as a player development coach (2014-16) with the Fever. His track record of developing WNBA talent includes 15-year Fever alum and 2011 WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings.

“They’ve been out of school for what two or three months now; they were just college students,” said Knox on Wednesday. “So we try to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when you’re going against, you know, veterans that are very much seasoned and have been in the league for a while.

“We’re just trying to make sure that they understand that it’s a long road ahead. But at the same time, they have the ability to learn from some of the experiences that they’re having against these great players, as well as some of the veterans that we have on our team.”

One of those veterans is fifth-year pro Kelsey Mitchell, who at age 26 is averaging a career-best 19.9 points per game. Mitchell is the first Fever player since Catchings in 2015 (July 5) to earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Through 11 games this season, Mitchell is second in the WNBA in points per game (19.6), second in made field goals (76) and tied for third in most made 3-point field goals (25).

Another season pro is seven-year veteran Bria Hartley, who kicked off her eighth season with her Fever debut Wednesday night, dropping 10 points in just more than 15 minutes after missing the last five games with a left hamstring injury.

“She came in and she was able to give us a lift,” Knox said regarding Hartley, who played three seasons for the Liberty (2017-19). “It was very exciting for her to come back to New York in her first game and have such a showing. We’ve been talking so much about what she would look like when she came out and how she would feel physically, so it was a pleasure to see her out there enjoying herself first of all, but getting acclimated to what we had going on.”

But make no mistake, while Knox is grateful to have been embraced so warmly during his transition, he’s firmly focused on leading the Fever back to being championship contender.

“I’m really ready to work and just lay down the law for our team, for our city, for our state, representing the Indiana Fever and getting it back to where it needs to be,” said Knox.

“I think sometimes I overdo it because it seems like I feel like I’m on the floor playing with them. But I just want them to succeed at a very high level. And sometimes, you know, I find myself just kind of over-coaching them because I want them to understand exactly what they need. And we have so many players that are just passionate and determined to be great. So I want to be there for them at just a very high level.”

The Fever are back in action Sunday in Atlanta vs. the Dream (6-3).

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