The first time Sylvia Fowles met Elena Delle Donne, she nearly suffocated the rookie.
Not purposely, of course. Fowles' bear hug just packed some serious power. Whether it was borne of excitement at the addition of the talented forward from Delaware, or eagerness to start the most anticipated season in Chicago Sky history, neither is sure.
But even before their introduction, Fowles knew on April 16, one day after the team made Delle Donne the No. 2 overall WNBA draft pick, that they were in for a special season in the Windy City.
"I feel like she's been that missing piece that we've been looking for for a long time," Fowles said. "We've never really had a true 4 player, and with her caliber she can also stretch the defense. Right then and there I knew we had something special."
Fowles was right. The Sky, who are in first place in the East entering Friday night at 18-8, are in the midst of their best season in franchise history. And it's fair to argue that Fowles, who is having the best season of her career, plays an equally big part in the success, even if she credits the rookie.
"I do think she's underrated," Delle Donne said, "but I don't think she cares at all, which is really cool."
Fowles is averaging 16.7 points and a career-best and WNBA-high 11.9 rebounds per game. Even better, Fowles, who made her third All-Star team this season, has averaged 19.4 points and 12.1 rebounds in the Sky's nine games since the All-Star break. She ranks ninth in the league in scoring, and she is tied for first in field goal percentage (58.1), is second in blocks (2.5) and second in double-doubles (13).
She also became the first player in league history with two 20-20 games in a single season. Fowles was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday, marking the second time this season -- and seventh overall -- she has earned that honor.
Fowles is one of two WNBA players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in a season (2011). Plus, she has won the 2011 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year award and two Olympic gold medals, to go along with four NCAA Final Four appearances. It all adds up to one of the finest basketball résumés you will find for a 27-year-old.
In a league where swing guards like Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore dominate, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound Fowles is one of the few true dominant centers. And the additions of Delle Donne and former NBA big man Tree Rollins as an assistant coach have each had a positive impact on Fowles, for different reasons.
While Fowles plays predominantly in the post, the Sky move Delle Donne around constantly. That helps with spacing on the floor in offensive sets.
"I hope to think I've helped, but she's very special on her own without me," Delle Donne said. "I think I do add a little bit more space on the floor. Being a stretch 4 player and being able to shoot the 3, I'm able to give her more room inside, but she still battles through double- and triple-teams. … For me, it creates a lot more space and a lot less help-side [defense] because they're stuck to Syl."
Third-year Sky coach Pokey Chatman said the relationship between Fowles and Delle Donne is "mutually beneficial."
"You see the results on the court, but there's this mutual admiration for each other's play and respect for how it complements each other," Chatman said.
The soft-spoken Rollins, who played with the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic in his 18-year NBA career, works specifically with the Sky's post players -- the "bigs," as he proudly calls them. Rollins' first step after being hired in late April was breaking down film on Fowles.
Rollins was familiar with the former LSU star from his time as both an assistant and head coach with the Washington Mystics. But it wasn't until he watched the tape that he realized how impressive she was -- and where she could still improve.
He immediately took note of her footwork and quickness, both of which he graded as "excellent." But this season, Rollins has worked closely with Fowles on her patience and offensive positioning. In years past, Fowles would duck into the paint too early or too aggressively and often find herself either shut out of the play or called for a three-second violation.
Now Fowles will let the plays come to her, simply by reading the defense, positioning herself correctly, and waiting for the right pass from Delle Donne or guards Epiphanny Price and Courtney Vandersloot. Rollins compares it to a quarterback throwing the ball to the spot where a wide receiver will be, rather than where he is. Fowles has also made progress on her jump shot.
"She makes me look like I know what I'm doing," Rollins said with a laugh. "She really is a great, great athlete and she's a great basketball player."
Rollins said he knows how Fowles feels to have a coach with on-court post knowledge. When Rollins was with the Hawks, he worked closely with assistant coach Willis Reed, widely regarded as one of basketball's best big men.
"The addition of Tree has been a blessing," Fowles said.
For someone who didn't pick up basketball until the eighth grade, Fowles' game still has an old-school feel to it. She has always been a willing rebounder and an intimidating defender. Her offense has caught up over the years.
"I was never an offensive threat," Fowles said. "…Rebounding was the only thing I could do, and that's pretty much been my bread and butter."
Chatman first met Fowles, then just 14 years old, while on a recruiting trip to the Miami area in the early 2000s. The coach was there to see other players, but Chatman couldn't help but notice Fowles, a ball of endless basketball potential just waiting to be molded.
Fowles eventually played for Chatman at LSU, and again with Spartak Moscow in Russia in the WNBA offseason.
"It's neat for me to see this little girl that's now a grown woman, coming down as a force in women's basketball," Chatman said. "It's nice to see."
Fowles is hardly the Sky's vocal leader -- that, by all accounts, is veteran Swin Cash -- but despite being just 27, she is the team's longest-tenured player. The Sky chose Fowles with the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, and she immediately became the face of the young franchise. Over the next five seasons, the Sky posted sub-.500 seasons, including three straight 14-20 records in a frustrating stretch from 2010 to '12.
"This season has been great," Fowles said. "It's everything I've been wishing for since I got here in Chicago. … It's been a long struggle, but it's been worth it."
A number of Sky players, Fowles included, have battled injuries this season. Delle Donne's concussion and recent foot injury have drawn considerable attention, but Fowles has played most of the season with a series of right-ankle issues. She initially suffered a moderate sprain but has since re-sprained it a handful of times. That, in turn, has put stress on the ankle ligaments and resulted in bone bruises.
"She'll never let you know, but she's hurting," Delle Donne said. "She's pushing through a lot and that's something I really look up to, and I'm going to do the same."
Fowles still has a long basketball career ahead of her, but she also is looking toward the future and is enrolled in mortuary science school with a goal of eventually becoming a mortuary beautician. She also hopes to continue working with disabled children, a passion she developed in high school.
As the Sky continue their push for the WNBA's best record, the goal begins to shift from simply making the playoffs to winning a championship. For a franchise with no playoff appearances, that might seem premature. But Fowles is ready for the challenge. It's not hard for her to imagine sharing another bear hug with Delle Donne, this time at Allstate Arena, under a stream of championship confetti.
"If somebody say they don't [think about winning a title], then they're lying," Fowles said matter-of-factly. "You definitely think about it, try to envision what it would be like, where you'd be and where you'd be standing and the confetti and all that. It's crossed my mind millions of time."