Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles is a native of Florida and graduate of LSU, and a polite Southern hospitality is just an ingrained part of her personality. But don't mistake that for a propensity to sugarcoat things. Fowles prefers the unvarnished truth.
So when you ask if she's relatively satisfied with the Sky's play thus far -- going into the week of the All-Star Game, they're in fourth place in the Eastern Conference -- she says it's not good enough.
The Sky have not made the WNBA playoffs in the franchise's five previous seasons of existence, so holding on to at least the No. 4 spot would be a new benchmark for the team. But Fowles says Chicago should have a better record than its current 7-8.
"I'm not happy with where we are," she said. "I feel like we should be beyond seven wins. The losses that we have are mostly about losing focus in the fourth quarter and the small things we're not getting done.
"But at the same time, I know it could be worse. And I'm looking forward to learning from those things that happened in the games we lost."
The Sky have their next chance to do that Tuesday when they face the Seattle Storm, the defending WNBA champion (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Before the season started, few would have predicted that both teams would have entered this matchup sitting in fourth place in their respective conferences with seven wins each.
The Storm have struggled with the loss of center Lauren Jackson due to a hip injury and are on a two-game skid, with close losses on the road to San Antonio and Minnesota. Thus the Sky face a Seattle team that is wounded but perhaps all the more dangerous.
These are the types of games for which Fowles particularly wants to see a different mindset by Chicago: more of a killer instinct. In the franchise's first season under coach Pokey Chatman, Fowles' previous mentor at LSU, the Sky are developing more of that sense of being a team that believes in itself.
Individually, Fowles certainly has that belief. She is currently leading the league in scoring (20.4) and is third in rebounding (9.9). Fowles didn't win the vote to start at center in Saturday's All-Star Game; that honor went to Connecticut's Tina Charles (17.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg). But Fowles is expected to be among the reserves who'll be announced Tuesday.
She's relishing the chance to play in that exhibition in San Antonio, but even more, continuing to improve for the second half of the season. Because that will be crucial. Even though the Sky have a two-game lead over the Atlanta Dream and a three-game advantage over the Washington Mystics for the last playoff spot in the East, both of those margins could evaporate quickly.
Atlanta, which fell to Seattle in the WNBA finals last year, is off to a slow start at 4-9. Washington, which finished first in the Eastern Conference regular season a year ago, is just 3-10 due to injuries that followed off-season turmoil.
Yet the potential hazards the Dream and Mystics pose for opponents were evident this weekend. Atlanta beat visiting Chicago 76-68 Saturday despite Fowles' 20 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots. And Washington pulled a stunner Sunday, rallying from a 24-point deficit on the road to beat Los Angeles 89-85 in overtime.
In other words, the Sky don't have to worry just about who is ahead of them in the East, but also who's behind them. After hosting the Storm, Chicago will have one more game before the All-Star break: Thursday at conference-leading Indiana.
Along with coach Chatman, among the new faces with Chicago this year are first-round draft pick Courtney Vandersloot, who is starting at point guard, and Michelle Snow, a starting post player obtained in a trade.
Fowles thus far has clicked well with both of them. She praises Vandersloot for her court vision and points out that the rookie's ability to step into the pro game quickly -- she's averaging almost 27 minutes per game -- has allowed Epiphanny Prince to thrive at the shooting guard position.
Prince, in her second season in the WNBA, has gone from averaging 9.8 points in 2010 to 16.2 currently. Vandersloot is averaging 8.7 points and 4.7 assists.
"The things she sees on court -- it's crazy, she can find me in the midst of anything," Fowles said of Vandersloot, whose rapid maturity is also helping the Sky deal with veteran guard Dominique Canty's absence for a few weeks due to a knee injury. "And she's also been a good combination for Piph, because she lets her do her thing. It's helped us tremendously."
The 6-foot-5 Snow, playing her 10th year in the WNBA, came to Chicago before this season in a deal that sent guard Jia Perkins to San Antonio. Snow is averaging 8.3 points and a career-best 8.2 rebounds. Snow and fellow starter Cathrine Kraayeveld, plus reserves Tamera Young, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Carolyn Swords, are all 6-2 or taller and help provide the 6-6 Fowles with good competition in practice.
"It makes a big difference for me, because we haven't had as many big, physical bodies like this to go against before," Fowles said. "They make me work harder, and I love that."
Fowles, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2008 behind Los Angeles' Candace Parker, has battled some injuries as a pro. But she's seen a bit more court time in the WNBA than has Parker, who is currently sidelined by a knee injury. Parker, who's also had to sit out because of a shoulder injury and maternity leave, has played in 75 WNBA regular-season games. Fowles has played in 90. Parker, though, has experienced the playoffs twice, while Fowles has yet to do that.
To get there, the Sky will need Fowles to play the rest of the season at least as well as she has so far. She thinks she's capable of that and more.
"A lot of it just has to do with just being healthy," she said. "But the other part of it is my teammates. They have been a great motivation to me. When I do something they're not satisfied with, they let me know. I think that's the difference between previous years in Chicago and this year. Nobody before really liked to talk much, but that's exactly what I like. I want people to tell me what I'm not doing well enough."
Just as she's not very satisfied with the Sky's record, Fowles is also self-critical even in a season when she's playing this well. It's the kind of ambition her team needs.
"My skin is very thick, and I think the reason I'm like that is I'm always willing to learn," Fowles said. "I'm not at my full potential just yet. Getting everybody's input means a lot to me. I want to be the best. I'm trying to get to the point where I can take over in games consistently."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.