INDIANAPOLIS — The WNBA is officially expanding.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced last week that the league will add a team in the Bay Area, with plans to start play in 2025. The new California team, which is yet to be named, will bring the league to 13 teams.
“The Indiana Fever are thrilled to welcome a new franchise to the WNBA family,” said Indiana Fever President and CEO Allison Barber in a statement. “Commissioner Engelbert’s continued commitment to the growth and expansion of the WNBA will help attract more fans and increase overall engagement. We look forward to competing against a new opponent at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in 2025.”
The WNBA will hold an expansion draft, which Engelbert said will likely be in late 2024 — after the 2025 draft lottery, but before the 2025 WNBA Draft.
So, what does this mean for the Indiana Fever retaining players or their draft picks?
The last time the WNBA expanded was in 2008 when the Atlanta Dream joined the league. With that expansion, each existing club was able to protect six players — half the roster. The Atlanta Dream then had their pick of the undrafted players in an expansion draft. The new team could also pick one unrestricted free agent to be the “core” with the caveat of giving them a max contract. The Dream picked 13 players in the 2008 expansion draft, including Ann Stother from the Fever.
Now, this is not to say it will work exactly the same this time around. The WNBA has not announced its plans for an expansion draft, including how it would work for existing clubs. Engelbert also indicated the league is in talks to bring in another team — rumored to be in Portland, Oregon, from The Next — that would also start in 2025.
But the rules, even with two new teams, will likely be similar.
With potentially six players to protect, who should the Fever prioritize? It’s an interesting aspect to theorize, as the Fever’s roster will drastically change between now and the end of the 2024 season.
The first is obvious: Aliyah Boston. The Fever’s first No. 1 pick in franchise history lived up to her name, leading the league in shooting percentage and becoming the unanimous Rookie of the Year. She is under contract through the end of the 2026 season, signing a three-year deal with a fourth-year club option — something the Fever will very likely take.
The next would be NaLyssa Smith, the 2022 No. 2 pick, who is under contract through the end of the 2025 season. She and Boston worked well in the post in their first season together, and it’s only going to get better as they gain more experience with each other.
Lexie Hull and Kristy Wallace are also under contract through the end of the 2025 season and became the backbone of the Fever’s defense this season under head coach Christie Sides. It would be crucial for the Fever to retain at least one of them for their defensive efforts.
After this, though, things get tricky. The rest of the Fever’s top players — Kelsey Mitchell, Erica Wheeler, and Victoria Vivians — are unrestricted free agents after the 2024 season. The Fever could afford to lose Victaria Saxton and Grace Berger, both of whom are under contract through the end of the 2026 season, in the expansion draft as well.
There’s also the question of future draft picks. The Fever would likely protect their top pick in the 2024 draft — whether that be Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, Hailey Van Lith, Georgia Amoore, or any of the top guards in the draft class. Indiana would also have their potential second and third-round picks in 2024 to consider leaving unprotected.
More: Indiana Fever have best odds in 2024 WNBA draft lottery, possible shot at Caitlin Clark
All of this goes to show that the Indiana Fever team will change even before the expansion draft in late 2024, and some of the potentially protected players may no longer be on the roster by that time. However, Indiana needs to be prepared to lose some of its players.
Rachel Adams is your WNBA insider, delivering comprehensive coverage of women’s basketball. With a commitment to highlighting the talent and achievements of WNBA players, she provides game analysis, player profiles, and inspiring stories from the league.