Indiana’s Identity: Frontcourt Needs to Be the Focus in 2021

When the Indiana Fever cross half-court to set up their offense, Teaira McCowan is the primary target. The team is in a quasi-transition, Tiffany Mitchell dribbling the ball on the left wing as the Phoenix Mercury defense retreats off a live ball turnover. Phoenix knows where Mitchell wants to go, so they swarm the entry: Brianna Turner on McCowan’s back, Alanna Smith flashing down to help deny. Mitchell swings the ball to the trailer—rookie Lauren Cox—at the top of the key. In the time it takes Smith to close one step, Cox zips the high-low pass to McCowan, who seals off the inside from Turner (a top-two in the W with 2.0 blocks per game [BPG]). Too far beneath the basket to affect the release, Turner’s prodigious shot blocking is neutralized, and McCowan finishes easily.

 

 

The Fever are a team in transition—both as a franchise and within this anecdote. They’ve been a lottery mainstay four years running, having last made the playoffs back in 2016. Nearly all Indiana’s currently rostered talent has not played anywhere else in the W, and, as a group, they’re very young. According to Kurtis Zimmerman of Across the Timeline and The Next, ahead of the 2020 season, Fever players averaged out to the WNBA’s third youngest squad, at 25.77 years old (and that includes Candice Dupree’s decade-and-a-half of experience).

 

Indiana Fever Roster, Courtesy of Across the Timeline

In the last two drafts, they’ve utilized a pair of third overall picks on frontcourt talent, first selecting 6’7” Teaira McCowan out of Mississippi State, then 6’4” Lauren Cox from Baylor.

 

Despite the three-point analytics revolution making its way to the WNBA in recent years, the Fever have not been an easy convert. During their four-season playoff drought, Indiana has not ranked higher than ninth in three-point makes or eighth in three-point attempts. The silver lining here, though, is that those highs came in 2020, the first season under Coach Marianne Stanley. Coach Stanley took the job after being an assistant coach on the 2019 Washington Mystics, who set the all-time W record for both attempts and makes. A continuation of this growth would further help spacing going forward.

Still, though, how can Indiana build an inside-heavy identity around these two interior players? The 2020 runner-up Las Vegas Aces—who have bottomed out all the three-point categories since Bill Laimbeer took over three seasons ago, yet are always at or near the top in free throw attempts—prove that bully ball still has a place in today’s league.

 

Snaring a Bear 

We’ll go backwards here, starting first with the 2020 pick. After a pair of Oregon Ducks came off the board, Indiana selected the four-year Baylor Bear. “We are extremely excited about having Lauren Cox join our organization,” said Tamika Catchings, the Fever’s GM and VP of Basketball Operations. “She does a little bit of everything, which will allow her to play in different positions with different players.”

Lauren Cox’s rookie year offered glimpses of her talent, though her season was put into sudden jeopardy at the outset. Cox was one of two players—along with 2019 All-Star Erica Wheeler—to test positive for COVID-19 upon initial tests before entering the WNBA bubble.

The threat of the coronavirus was even worse for Cox than for most. At seven years old, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a condition where the body struggles to produce insulin, which helps create energy. Throughout her time at Baylor, Cox used her platform to raise awareness. Thankfully, she avoided significant symptoms, and joined the Fever by the fifth game of the season.

Without the benefit of even a brief training camp to get up to game speed and conditioning, Cox struggled to find consistent minutes on the floor. Her season high—which she hit on four separate occasions—was just 17 minutes.

In just 183 minutes, an incredibly small sample, Cox flashed per-36 potential, with averages of 9.8 points per game (PPG), 9.1 rebounds per game (RPG), and 3.7 assists per game (APG).

She and Victoria Vivians (who played just six games) were the only two Fever players to record a positive +/-, with Cox’s +1.0 being the team’s top mark. To be an effective asset on offense, though, Cox will need to improve on her 41.9 percent shooting.

Still, it’s her passing and offensive IQ that allow her to ignite the offense, even when her own shot is not falling. Indiana’s four best two-player lineups, in terms of +/-,  involved Lauren Cox.

The defensive instincts that made Cox such an intriguing prospect are a little ahead of her offensive. Synergy rated Cox in the 80th percentile on overall defense, holding opponents to just 33 percent from the field. Though her blocked shots weren’t at the level they were in college, they will come—especially once Cox and McCowan get comfortable holding down the paint together. According to Her Hoop Stats, Cox’s block percentage cleared nine percent in each of her four years in college, before plummeting to just 1.8 percent as a rookie. With a full training camp and a year of experience, however, her numbers will improve.

 

Finding Minutes for the Foundation

Teaira McCowan’s inconsistent minutes have been a baffling storyline over her first two professional seasons. Though she hasn’t missed a game, McCowan started just 26 of 56 contests. As a rookie, she pulled down 9.0 RPG in just 22.1 minutes, second only to the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones (9.7 RPG). Per 36 minutes, McCowan secured a league-best 14.6 boards, a full 1.5 rebounds ahead of Monique Billings of the Atlanta Dream.

McCowan’s impressive wingspan helped her to consistently affect shots. She cracked the top 10 with 1.3 BPG, but it was defending jumpers where she really shined. According to Synergy, McCowan ranked in the 91st percentile defending jumpers, allowing just 63 points on 92 possessions (.685 points per possession [PPP] on 29.3 percent shooting). Around the rim, she regressed to around league average, but has the tools to intimidate.

During her sophomore campaign, McCowan saw moderate improvement as a post defender, but worsened on the boards. The table below shows her rebounding percentages and rankings within the league, all courtesy of WNBA Advanced Stats. Of course, it’s important to note that the shortened bubble season created both a smaller sample and an abnormal playing environment, which affected every player differently.

 

On the offensive end, McCowan always has a foot in the paint. In year 2, she improved greatly at finishing within five feet, climbing from 56.5 percent up to 67.8 percent. For McCowan, it’s all about positioning before the entry, so she can catch and go straight up without ever taking a dribble. The best opportunities often come from forwards that can spread the defense, giving McCowan room to operate. Candice Dupree assisted on a team-best 30 McCowan scores over the past two seasons. Despite her limited play in 2020, Lauren Cox tied for fourth on the team, contributing to eight McCowan buckets.

See Also

 

Frontcourt of the Future

About those eight Cox-to-McCowan assists? They occurred in just 57 minutes. In those limited minutes, the duo accounted for a +2.2 +/-, the second-best mark of any pair of Fever teammates.

 

In Cox’s junior year, Baylor won the NCAAW championship, led by the Cox/Kalani Brown frontcourt. Cox, operating primarily outside the paint, averaged 3.7 assists that season, ranking in the top six percent of all players, according to Her Hoop Stats. She prefers to play as a stretch-four, allowing her to diagnose defenses and break them down. In that junior year, Cox made 55.5 percent of her two-point attempts; that number dropped to just 46.6 percent when she was forced into more minutes at the five.

 When playing beside one another, the McCowan-Cox tandem cleaned the glass at an impressive rate, pulling down boards at a rate 16 points better than opponents, as calculated by Positive Residual. Defensively, any lineup including the pair performed above league average from every spot on the floor.

Rebounding Rates and Defensive Percentages, Courtesy of Positive Residual

Finding shared court time for McCowan and Cox should be Indiana’s top priority in 2021. Two veterans, Dupree and Natalie Achonwa, were Cox’s primary competition for power forward minutes last season. As of now, Dupree is an unrestricted free agent, and Achonwa is reportedly heading to the Minnesota Lynx; Achonwa has already confirmed with goodbyes on social media. If Indiana’s to scale the standings, they must invest in their recent draft picks. It will take a commitment from the staff to play both McCowan and Cox, and to play them together. 

 

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