It’s a tough season to be a center in the WNBA.
Foul calls are down significantly, dropping by 1.4 fouls per game from 2018. But the “big” bigs — the best fives the league has to offer — have been hit especially hard. Through 32 games, the number of free-throw attempts by Liz Cambage of the Las Vegas Aces, Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury and Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx is down 37 percent.
The results have been evident. Griner, tired of taking so much uncalled contact, was involved in an altercation last month that resulted in a three-game suspension. Cambage described it, in an interview earlier this summer, this way: “I don’t really see myself playing into my 30s because I don’t want to go to war.” Cambage is still having an elite season, but her overall production is down from last year — her field-goal percentage has fallen from 58.9 to 49.3 percent while her true shooting percentage has dropped from 64.3 to 55.2 percent.
But Fowles, through a combination of inter- and intraseason adaptations, has kept her production remarkably consistent. Her career field-goal percentage is 59.3 percent. This season, her field-goal percentage is … 59.1 percent.
Another year, same Syl. At age 33, Fowles is this generation’s greatest center, trailing only Lauren Jackson among centers in career Win Shares, but she doesn’t get enough appreciation, to hear her coach and teammates tell it.
“Syl reminds me of myself, like no one recognizes her greatness,” said Fowles’s current Lynx and former LSU teammate Seimone Augustus. “But she continues to just get better, year after year. I mean, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done and she retires, I think people are going to look back and go, ‘Wow.’”
By the catch-all stat Win Shares, Fowles has quietly amassed more value than anyone else in the WNBA over the past three seasons. Elena Delle Donne, Griner and Cambage may get more headlines, but only Fowles has more than 20 win shares since the start of the 2017 season. No one else has cracked 19.
But while the statistics — at least the topline numbers — would indicate that Fowles is simply the same great center she’s been since her rookie season in Chicago back in 2008, a closer look at how she’s been scoring her points in 2019 reveals the change she made to enhance her game.
Fowles is 19-for-34 on shots 15 to 19 feet away from the basket, a 55.9 percent clip that ranks her among this season’s elite midrange shooters. For reference, Fowles was 2-for-6 from that distance in 2018.
That didn’t happen by accident. Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve told Fowles in their exit meeting at the end of 2018 that she wanted her to diversify her game, and Fowles worked with Lynx assistant Walt Hopkins all offseason. The daily routine was punishing: Fowles would shoot at the rim, in the paint, from the free-throw and three-point lines, and couldn’t advance to the next spot until she made five in a row, all swishes.
Her success this season from all over the court has actually helped Fowles focus on her original strength — that endless array of post moves — and not settle for the jumpers she’s now sinking routinely.
“I have to make sure it doesn’t take away what I do best,” Fowles said. “I have to make sure I don’t get too relaxed and shoot jumpers. When I’m open, I shoot. But when I’m not, it’s making sure I do what I used to do, and that’s going to the rim.”
But even Fowles acknowledged a frustration with how much harder it has been to earn foul-line trips through contact. Fowles has gotten more than four free-throw attempts in a game just six times all season. In 2018, she shot more than four free throw attempts in 17 of 34 games.
I asked Sue Blauch, the WNBA’s head of referee performance and development, about the reduction in both free-throw attempts originating out of the paint and player frustration with it. She acknowledged the decrease in offensive efficiency in the league this season and said “everyone should dig deep and explore” what might be the cause. “We certainly looked at our play-calling data and have addressed any contribution that officiating may have had,” she said.
Refs across the WNBA did seem to take note of recent league office guidance. Before July’s All-Star break, the average number of fouls per game was 33.2. Since then, fouls are up to 37.3 per game — an increase of 12.3 percent. That shift toward more fouls in the paint required another adjustment for Fowles, who was sent to the bench early in several games with foul trouble herself.
“Now everything’s a foul fest, the last couple of games it’s a foul fest, we have to adjust to that,” Reeve said after a Minnesota win in New York on Aug. 13. “All of a sudden there’s an about-face about how it’s being officiated. And so I told Syl, I said, ‘No complaints now. You know, you gotta get yourself to the foul line.’ Some of it is being patient and not racing through the move, give a defender a chance to foul you, type of thing. So I think she’s got to be a little more poised in the post.”
It isn’t easy. Fowles said she huddled with Cambage and Griner during All-Star weekend in Las Vegas about how to handle all the physical abuse. She laughed when asked if she meditates.
“Oh, yes,” Fowles said. “I meditate. I talk to therapists. It gets frustrating.” But she doesn’t want to talk about it with her teammates and coaches, to “put out that negative energy.” Instead, she just continues to be Sylvia Fowles.
In the three games after that Aug. 13 win, she shot 63.6 percent. She took only one shot from the 15-to-19-foot range. And in her past four games, she’s shot 59.5 percent, going 4-of-7 when 15 to 19 feet from the basket.
The rules change, the teams change, the players change. But Sylvia Fowles keeps on doing what she does.