Teaira McCowan is just scratching the surface of her potential

Teaira McCowan was a dominating defender in college at Mississippi State. She’s helped the Fever improve dramatically at that end but she’s still just scratching the surface of her potential.

When the Fever selected Teaira McCowan with the No. 3 pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, it was a play to improve their defense. Her post game and finishing ability would surely provide an offensive benefit as well, but the 2018 NCAA Defensive Player of the Year had the potential to transform what had been the second-worst defense in the WNBA during the 2018 season.

The Fever have actually dropped to last in the league in defensive efficiency this season but they’re still allowing six fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last year. McCowan is certainly making her impact felt so far but the scary thing for the rest of the league should be just how much room she still has to grow.

McCowan is third in the league in blocks per 100 possessions, just a hair behind defensive dynamo and MVP candidate Jonquel Jones. However, McCowan is also averaging an eye-popping 7.9 personal fouls per 100 possessions, one of the highest rates in the league. She’s only fouled out of one game so far this season but she’s also hit five fouls four different times, each coming in 30 minutes or less.

So far, McCowan appears to be particularly foul-prone in pick-and-roll situations. With her length, the Fever usually have her playing a modest version of drop coverage, sagging into the paint below a screen to keep ball-handlers from the rim and still be in position to challenge a mid-range shot. The problem is that this often gives ball-handlers a head of steam to attack a particular angle and her reaction time hasn’t always been quick enough to adjust.

Here she gets caught in a mass of bodies trying to cross the lane and swipes at the ball.

This is reflective of a good number of McCowan’s fouls around the basket. When she’s drawn outside the paint, the angles are slightly different. Her reaction time and quickness in space haven’t been enough to compensate for a quick burst from the ball-handler and she’s often caught out of position, trying to make a challenge from the side of the play.

Here we see her get in position to contain the ball-handler but there’s no help defense on her side of the floor and the result is the same — a pocket pass gets the ball to the rolling screener and she isn’t in position to contest cleanly.

None of this should be deeply concerning for projections of McCowan’s future development. Her positioning and speed learning curve and the propensity for fouls are one of the reasons the Fever’s defense has actually been better with her on the bench. But her block percentage is already top-10 all-time among rookies who played at least 400 minutes, and her steal percentage is in the top-40 all-time among rookie centers.

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In addition, her work on the glass has been extraordinary. Not only is her total rebound percentage the best rookie mark in WNBA history, but it’s also the best single-season mark for any player of any experience level to have played at least 400 minutes. And it’s not just defensive rebounding driving that. She’s been exceptional on the offensive glass and leads the league in second-chance points per 100 possessions by a wide margin.

It’s clear that McCowan’s size, length, skill and incredible hands are going to make her an impact big in the WNBA for years to come. She’s already hitting that level in certain areas and as her awareness and positioning improve on defense, the fouls will start to fall away and it’s easy to see her as the elite interior defender she appeared to be as a draft prospect.

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