Sylvia Fowles is a first ballot Hall of Famer who is still playing at a high level at age 36. The 6’6” center for the Minnesota Lynx is good for reasons that are clear when watching her. Her low post scoring, rebounding, and being really tall at the rim are obvious when watching her. An area of her game that is less obvious, but that has allowed her to thrive despite the changes in WNBA playing style over the previous 5 years, is her ability to defend in space.
Teaira McCowan at her best appears to be the best of the next wave of dominant centers in the WNBA. However, she has only started 3 of the Fever’s 7 games, and those starts were due to injuries. For the 6’7” center for the Indiana Fever to reach her potential, she will need to show that she can go from being a liability guarding in space to someone who can hold her own, even when teams repeatedly target her.
The WNBA, like all levels of basketball, has realized over the past five years that 3>2. Since 2014, the percent of shots from the 3 in the WNBA has gone from 21% to 29% in 2019. That’s from this article in the Athletic ($) about the rise of the 3 in the W, worth reading if you have a subscription. This shift has shown no signs of slowing down this season, as more teams are even having centers like Kiah Stokes of the New York Liberty, who had never shot 3s before this year, fire away.
While shooting more 3s is better than long 2s because of the extra point, it is not the only benefit to shooting 3s. The other reason 3 point shooting leads to better offense is that it helps create much wider driving lanes for players to attack off the dribble, thus improving offense in the paint as well. This forces centers to spend more time guarding in space against guards and forwards. Post defense is still useful for centers, but defending in space matters as much if not more.
Compare and contrast the 2019 Mystics and the 2015 Indiana Fever. The Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history with an offensive rating of 112.9 points scored per 100 possessions last year with pristine spacing. The Indiana Fever made it to the finals in 2015 and pushed the Minnesota Lynx to 5 games. They were 3rd in offense that year, with an offensive rating of 99.8. They led the league in percentage from 3, at 36%, but they only took 14.9 threes per game. The Mystics in 2019 took 25.4. The Lynx took even fewer 3s and were worse on offense, if you are wondering why I highlight the Fever here.
This can be seen just by looking at the spacing on the floor.
Sylvia Fowles was on the Lynx team that beat those Fever in that finals in 2015. She went from playing against that kind of spacing, to playing the Washington Mystics with 4 or 5 shooters at a time. This is a transition that has run other centers out of the WNBA entirely, or forced them to be situational players. Carolyn Swords, for instance, starts for the Aces, but typically plays between 10 and 20 minutes.
Fowles, however, has been able to keep up with the changes. She is excellent at defending in space. While not the swiftest player laterally, she is significantly more effective on this type of plays than many of her younger contemporaries, such as Liz Cambage or Brittney Griner. One can see this in that teams are disinclined to even challenge her. When she shares the court with Damiras Dantas, teams are more likely to run the pick and roll with Dantas’ defender. And Dantas is a fairly athletic big in her own right.
Sylvia Fowles here is defending a Courtney Vandersloot pick and roll. Vandersloot, of the Chicago Sky, is a good athlete who finishes fairly well at the rim. Even though Vandersloot has a head of steam, Fowles is able to move her feet and Vandersloot hits the bottom of the backboard. Fowles is decisive on where to go. Even one false move or hesitation and Vandersloot is at the rim with an open layup.
Fowles is able to do this against even the best slashers. Kahleah Copper, also of the Chicago Sky, is as fast as they come in the W, and at 6’2” has the size to finish over and around size. Fowles is called for the foul here, but that was a very questionable call.. She forces Copper to make a wild pass back out.
Compare those plays by Fowles, against two talented players with experience in the W, with McCowan trying to defend pick and rolls involving the Wings’ 3 rookies, Tyasha Harris, Bella Alarie, and Satou Sabally. Alarie, being guarded by McCowan, screens for Harris here. McCowan seems unsure of where to be. She is not high enough to contest if Tyasha Harris shoots off the dribble from 3, which fair, that’s a shot the Fever is likely willing to give up, but then she is still completely unable to provide any resistance to Harris at the rim. She is standing on the wrong side of Alarie, and it’s not like Alarie suddenly flipped the screen.
This is a regular season game with 3 rookies repeatedly targeting Tearra McCowan. Imagine if the Fever made the playoffs against a team like the Storm, what would happen. Here is another example, about a minute later in the same game against the Wings. Once again, Alarie is being guarded by McCowan, and screens, this time for Satou Sabally. McCowan switches out onto Satou Sabally, thus leaving her on an island against Sabally. It does not go well for Indiana.
Defending in space, both in the pick and roll and when switched onto a smaller player, is among the hardest things for a young big to learn in the pros. McCowan will get better at this part of the game, but she has a long way to go to reach the predictions some had of her being a top 10 player in the WNBA. While it frustrates Fever fans, this is likely part of why Marianne Stanley has opted to not start Teaira McCowan.
Sylvia Fowles, on the other hand, has a team that is starting a rookie 5’5” (if that) pg in Crystal Dangerfield and giving heavy minutes to other unheralded rookies near the top of the standings in the WNBA. She does have help, in particular Napheesa Collier is following up her rookie of the year campaign with another good season so far. But Fowles’ ability to keep up with a changing league and stay as effective as she has is as impressive as it comes. Here’s hoping her calf injury is not too serious and she is able to come back soon this season.