July 31, 2020
Crunching the Numbers: Sylvia Fowles rebounded to the top
Fowles dominated her climb to the top of the leader board in Minnesota, but her pathway there wasn't always clear
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Sylvia Fowles of Minnesota Lynx on becoming the WNBA all-time leading rebounder Tuesday night. Photo Credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter Page.
Half her rookie year was ripped away by injury, but Sylvia Fowles rebounded.
Her Chicago Sky tenure ended tumultuously, but Sylvia Fowles rebounded.
Her time in Minnesota has been shared with a legend on the boards, but Sylvia Fowles rebounded.
For many of the league’s statistical leaders, the “secret” to getting to the top of the leader board is consistency + longevity. By the numbers, the start of Sylvia Fowles’ career did not project an eventual record-holder, but she just kept rebounding. Let’s dive in.
Starting (Relatively) Slowly
After playing 41 of 68 possible games in her first two seasons following a tough injury in the fifth game of her rookie year and a knee injury which impacted the subsequent season, there was no question of Fowles’ ability and her defensive prowess, but there was plenty of uncertainty about how consistently she’d be able to play.
Looking back 11 years later it’s easy to collectively shake our heads at that, but it (reasonably) also dampened her initial numbers. Of the current top-5 players in career rebounds per game, Fowles’ first two seasons pale in comparison to each of the others’ early careers.
The slow start put her behind in the early milestones. She ended her fourth season with her 1,000th rebound, and she is currently 6th-fastest to that mark.
Despite what can look like a slow start, it’s worth keeping in mind that two players who have each been the league’s leading rebounders don’t appear in either of these tables. Tamika Catchings (now 3rd all-time in career rebounds) took 125 games to get to 1,000 rebounds, and Rebekkah Brunson (who Fowles just passed) took 164 games and averaged just 4.54 rebounds over her first two seasons playing off the bench and alongside fellow elite rebounder Yolanda Griffith.
Though the Chicago Sky dropped in overall record from 2009 to 2010, it ended up being a major inflection point in Fowles’ career. The departure of the Sky’s previous leading rebounder, Candice Dupree, to the Phoenix Mercury meant that Fowles was the team’s new #1 option in every sense.
Dupree also took her efficient shooting with her, meaning there were even more offensive rebounds for Fowles to chase, and her numbers soared.
Each of these five years she finished top-3 in rebounds per game, including her league-leading 11.53 rebounds per game in 2013, the apex of her time in Chicago.
Unfortunately, things came to an end in Chicago going into the 2015 season as Fowles sat out after requesting to be traded while waiting for a deal to go through. It was during that time that Fowles’ rebounding path intertwined with the league’s leader in total rebounds from 2010 to 2015, Tina Charles. With 2,018 rebounds in her first six seasons, Charles kept moving up the charts past Fowles, seemingly establishing herself on the track to eventually take her seat in the rebounding throne.
Rebounding in Minnesota
Five years ago nearly to the day, Fowles finally got her wish as she was sent to the Minnesota Lynx as part of a three-team trade with the Sky and Atlanta Dream. She immediately began the bounce back, winning Finals MVP in the team’s 2015 championship run, but from a statistical perspective, relatively speaking, she was still warming up.
In her first full season with Minnesota, she eclipsed the 2,000-rebound mark, getting there in 206 games, second only to Charles’ 196 games late in the previous season. At the end of the 2016 season, Tamika Catchings finally snuck past Lisa Leslie’s long-time league-leading career rebounding total of 3,307.
Teammate Rebekkah Brunson continued to average just under seven rebounds in her final three seasons, finally surpassing Catchings to take over the top spot in early July of 2018, ultimately ending what would be her last season playing with a (then) WNBA-best 3,356 rebounds.
But once she got some games under her belt in Minnesota, Fowles’ numbers surged. As her rebounding averages surged, Charles’ dropped, ultimately leading Fowles to re-take the lead over her contemporary in early 2018 with her sights clearly set on the top of the leader boards.
She finished that 2018 season by setting a new single-season WNBA rebounding record with 404 total and 11.88 per game. In mid-August of that year, she became the sixth player to reach the 3,000-rebound mark, also setting a record by getting there in 304 total games.
Her averaged dipped back down the following year as the Lynx welcomed in 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier and her 6.6 rebounds per game, but after Fowles passed up both Leslie and Catchings in the latter part of the season, she ended 2019 just 24 rebounds behind Brunson with 3,332 rebounds to her name.
If there were questions around how Fowles may look in the waning years of her career, amidst a global pandemic, in an unfamiliar environment after very little time to get back to game shape, she opened 2020 with a bang that let everyone know there’s plenty left in the tank.
She had 17 points and 18 rebounds in her first game of the season, matching the third-highest single-game rebounding total in Lynx history, and she followed that with 15 points and 11 rebounds in the second game, getting the seven she needed for the record right before halftime.
She now leads with 3,361 career rebounds, clearly with a lot to add on this season and beyond. She also owns the league record with 9.83 rebounds per game over her career and is third in rebound percentage at 19.49%, behind only Cheryl Ford (20.45%) and Courtney Paris (20.17%).
So, what’s next? While Fowles will continue to push her rebounding total further out of the reach of her contemporaries, there are some numbers she can chase.
She left the Sky as the franchise leader in rebounds with 1,832, and that record remains, but she is third in Lynx rebounds with 1,529, behind Maya Moore (1,589) and the player whose league record she just took over, Rebekkah Brunson (2,158). At her current pace, there’s no reason to think she won’t pass up Maya by the midway point of the season, but whether or not she can reach Brunson’s franchise mark will depend at this point on her longevity.
At her recent rates, she would likely need a couple more seasons to get there. Regardless, she leads the Lynx in rebounding average with 9.8 per game, with Brunson closest behind at 8.3 per game, so that record looks safely in hand.
What else is ahead? Putting the rebounding total record as far out of reach might be all. Looking at active players in the WNBA, it’s hard to find anyone with more than a few years of experience who look primed to chase her, especially without knowing how much longer Fowles intends to play.
Tina Charles is the most natural pick given she has hovered right around Fowles’ total for the last several years, but her rebounding average has been on the decline, and after sitting out this season for medical reasons, the distance between her and Fowles may be insurmountable.
Given their ages and proximity to Fowles’ career total, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike are also fine candidates except for the fact that they are battling for most of the same rebounds as Los Angeles Sparks teammates. Parker has played most of her career with elite rebounders, playing her first two years with Leslie and with Ogwumike since 2012.
How about the younger crop? Fowles has some good competition in the league’s rebounding leaders from 2018 forward:
Cambage’s inconsistency in playing in the WNBA makes her unlikely, but the others on the list are intriguing. Teaira McCowan’s average covers just her rookie year and one game in 2020, and 8.8 per game is nearly 1.2 rebounds more than Fowles’ early career averages. Breanna Stewart hasn’t had an eye-popping season average like those at the height of Fowles’ career, but she has been consistent, with a career average currently at 8.8 per game over her first 103 games.
Alyssa Thomas has consistently solid rebounding numbers, but she faces the same problem as Ogwumike and Parker, playing alongside another great rebounder in Jonquel Jones. Speaking of Jonquel, she has had fantastic highs in rebounding average – her 11.85 per game in 2017 was tops for that season – but missing the 2020 season and splitting numbers with Thomas leaves her as a question mark.
That said, there’s a lesson to be learned from Fowles’ ascent to league-leading status: the early years don’t tell you everything about where a player can get; it’s all about the rebound.
All player statistics are courtesy of Across the Timeline and include regular-season game totals only.