October 25, 2020
In the Mavunga family, women rule on the basketball court
Stephanie Mavunga and Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga both have strong cases to be the family’s top player
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If three examples make a pattern, women’s basketball scouts might want to look extra hard at girls who are about ten years old and wear jeans to their first basketball practice. Future WNBA All-Stars Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike did, and so did Chicago Sky forward Stephanie Mavunga.
“I’ll never forget: my very first tryout was in Brownsburg, [Indiana,] and I showed up in jeans,” Mavunga told High Post Hoops’ Keith Geswein in an unpublished interview in 2019. “… And then everyone’s looking at me; I’m so uncomfortable. But I managed to make the B-team.”
Mavunga, whose family moved from Zimbabwe to England to the United States before her fourth birthday, was far from a natural on the basketball court. When she started playing in fifth grade, she said, “I was very unathletic. I was terrible.” Even as a high school freshman, she sometimes traveled six or seven times per game, according to her older brother Julian. Her coach at Brownsburg High School, Amy Brauman, likened her to a baby giraffe: “She got pushed around a lot and wasn’t always real steady on her feet.”
All of that eventually changed with a lot of help from Julian, who is five years older. “He worked with me since the day I first touched a basketball,” Stephanie said last year. “When he comes home, that’s the first thing we do. … My mom is always like, ‘No, come back.’ We say, ‘We got to get to the gym.’”
As a 6’3 high school senior, Stephanie averaged 23.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks per game and won The Indianapolis Star’s Miss Basketball award for the top female player in the state. “She is like no other post player because she is athletic and able to drive past bigger people,” Brauman said. “She’s also great at blocking shots. She covers up a lot of defensive errors.”
Stephanie went on to play at the University of North Carolina and The Ohio State University before being drafted into the WNBA, but she originally had much less lofty goals. “I always looked up to my older brother,” she told Geswein. “I was like, ‘He’s playing; maybe I want to play as well.’ … All I wanted initially was [for] it to be a bonding thing with my brother, and I didn’t know that I would be in the position that I am now.”
Stephanie had a strong first two seasons at UNC, averaging 12.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from the field. But she got even better after transferring to Ohio State: she averaged a double-double (14.6 points, 10.9 rebounds) on 61% shooting in her final two seasons, and head coach Kevin McGuff said during her senior year that she had done more work the previous summer to transform her body than any player he had ever coached.
In 2020, Stephanie completed her third WNBA season, spending two and a half seasons with the Indiana Fever before being traded to the Chicago Sky in August. In most families, that would be enough for her to be considered the best athlete in the family, but Julian and younger brother Jordache also play professionally.
Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga, Julian’s wife and a 2012 WNBA champion with the Fever, also has a strong case for top honors. Jeanette and Julian met in 2014 on the Fever’s practice court, where Julian had just finished a workout with Fever legend Tamika Catchings and offered to rebound for Jeanette. Julian made Jeanette laugh even as she tried to focus on shooting, and that chemistry persisted even when Julian went back overseas.
“The sport that we play, it’s all about improving, and I think we help each other improve as people and as basketball players, and at the end of the day, that’s why we gel so well,” Julian said in 2017, a year after they married.
So, with multiple claims to be the best athlete in the family, I gathered the data to settle the score, starting with all four players’ college careers. The data are for the NCAA level only, so they cover all four seasons of Jeanette, Stephanie, and Julian’s careers but only two for Jordache, who started his career in the junior college ranks. The best result is highlighted in gray.
Sources: Stanford, UNC, and Ohio State women’s basketball; Miami (Ohio) and University of Indianapolis men’s basketball; and Sports-Reference for player statistics and team records. Across the Timeline for WNBA Draft history.
When the Fever drafted Stephanie in 2018, then-head coach Pokey Chatman pointed to the hard work that had gotten Stephanie from baby giraffe to the Big Ten’s third-best rebounder as a college senior. “She’s a monster rebounder,” Chatman said. “She’s a hard worker. She’s worked on her game in areas that we all need.”
Along with rebounding, the Fever’s areas of need at the time included defense—the Fever had finished last in the WNBA in defensive rating in 2017—and shot-blocking, as the team had ranked last in the league in block rate in two of the previous three seasons. In college, Stephanie averaged 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game, ranking first in her family in all three rebounding categories and blocks per game and tying with Jeanette for the family lead in steals.
Stephanie is also the family leader in points per game, field goal percentage, and games started, giving her the inside track to “best athlete in the family” status. Her biggest challenger is Jeanette, a 6’ Stanford point guard who advanced to four Final Fours from 2008 through 2011 and lost only 14 games in four years. Jeanette won nearly every category that Stephanie did not, including minutes per game, 3-point shooting percentage, free-throw shooting percentage, and assists per game. As a senior, Jeanette ranked in the top six in the Pac-12 in each of those categories and led the conference in free-throw shooting percentage (89.3%).
Julian did not win a single category outright, tying Jeanette in minutes per game with 29.0. But that undersells how productive he was at Miami (Ohio). As a senior, he led the Mid-American Conference in minutes, points, and rebounds per game, and he ranks in the top 25 in conference history in career free throws made (444) and attempted (632). For his career, he averaged 11.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, showing a versatility that would help him stick in the professional ranks.
After graduation, Julian played in the NBA Summer League with the Indiana Pacers; in the NBA G-League with the Maine Red Claws; and overseas in Italy, Ukraine, Israel, Kosovo, and Japan. “My older brother’s game is insane,” Stephanie said in 2019, “and he’s a 6’8 positionless player who led Japan’s league in assists last season. I remember looking at his stats earlier this year and he was averaging almost a triple-double and shooting over 60 percent. If I could model my game exactly after him, I would, and I’m working on this.”
In the same interview, Stephanie also discussed Jordache, who like Julian was nearly shut out in this comparison. “The work ethic of my little brother is unmatched,” Stephanie said. “I truly admire his drive. We’re about the same height, but he plays more guard-like. He can still play bully ball with those taller than him and can shoot the three at an alarming rate. … The sky is the limit for him. He doesn’t care who you are and has so much confidence. He truly believes he’d beat anyone.”
Jordache’s path to professional basketball was more circuitous than his siblings’ route through Division I. He attended community colleges in three different states before transferring to Division II University of Indianapolis, where he helped his team win 43 games in two seasons and secure a No. 1 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. He signed with an agent in May, a few months after the COVID-19 pandemic ended his senior season.
Jordache told The Indianapolis Star earlier this year that trying to match his siblings’ accomplishments has always motivated him. “Everybody in the house — my brother, my sister — was competitive,” Jordache said. “We all grew up playing each other … I just try to follow in their footsteps.” He is especially close with Stephanie, whom he calls his best friend, but Julian also watches all of Jordache’s games and offers feedback.
When Stephanie was drafted into the WNBA in 2018, she almost literally followed in Jeanette’s footsteps by joining the Indiana Fever, which had drafted Jeanette seven years prior. Buoyed by Jeanette’s calming presence in training camp, Stephanie had 18 points and 8 rebounds in her first preseason game.
However, Jeanette was waived at the end of training camp, leaving Stephanie as the only Mavunga on the roster. Jeanette has battled injuries, including a torn ACL in the 2012 WNBA Finals and a torn Achilles in 2014, and has not appeared in a WNBA regular-season game since 2017.
To people who follow the Mavungas, the trade that sent Stephanie to Chicago in August 2020 may have seemed like the end of an era, as at least one Mavunga had played for an Indiana college or pro team for most of the previous decade. But Stephanie was excited about the opportunity—and especially to play with Gabby Williams and for James Wade, both of whom she considers family. (Last winter, she played with Williams on the French team Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomération, for which Wade’s wife Edwige Lawson-Wade is the general manager.)
“I’m really just excited, I’m really happy to — wow — I’m really happy to be wearing this blue and yellow,” she said in her first few days with the Sky.
To compare Stephanie and Jeanette’s WNBA careers as fairly as possible, I analyzed their first three seasons, with the best result highlighted in yellow. This decision was made to give Stephanie an equal footing, since she has only played professionally for three seasons. However, it turned out that Jeanette’s strongest statistical seasons were her first two, in 2011 and 2012, so she actually got a slight boost from the decision.
Source: Her Hoop Stats
Many of the statistics are presented per 40 minutes because Jeanette played almost twice as many minutes per game as Stephanie through their first three seasons. Jeanette had the better offensive and defensive ratings; she produced about seven more points than she gave up per 100 possessions, whereas Stephanie just about broke even. Jeanette also had slightly more win shares per 40 minutes and was a more accurate shooter. As Stephanie put it in 2017, Jeanette “shoots the lights out.”
On the other hand, Stephanie produced more points, rebounds, and blocks per 40 minutes than Jeanette, and she also had a better efficiency rating, 13.4 to 10.6. Just as in college, the sisters-in-law tied in steals per 40 minutes with 1.2 apiece. This is one of the closest comparisons I’ve had in this series, though Jeanette’s 2012 championship might give her the tiebreaker.
The summer before Stephanie’s senior year at Ohio State, much of the work she did to get in better shape was a family affair. She worked out regularly with Julian and Jordache and occasionally with Jeanette, squeezing two workouts, a pick-up game, and a weightlifting session into her typical day.
After she returned to campus, Stephanie pointed to those hours in the gym with her family as instrumental not only for her conditioning, but also for her confidence. Playing pickup mostly with male players, Julian often picked Stephanie first or second, passed her the ball, and told her, “Go to work.”
“There’s that constant competition playing with the guys and [Julian] put me in those situations,” Stephanie told The Columbus Dispatch. “… That confidence he instilled in me pushed me to be a better player.”
“It’s always fun, sibling workouts in the summer,” she added. “We always laugh and joke around that if we had a sibling showdown in Indiana, then you wouldn’t want to see [the Mavungas].”
Thank you to Keith Geswein, who contributed additional reporting for this story.
Families previously featured in this series include the McGees, the twins in the West Coast Conference, the Vanderquigs, Erica McCall and DeWanna Bonner, Chennedy Carter and Jia Perkins, the Joneses, the Samuelsons, the Ogwumikes (Part 1 and Part 2), and the Mabreys.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.