MINNEAPOLIS -- By field goal percentage, Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles is the best shooter in WNBA history. Acquired by the Lynx from Chicago in July 2015, Fowles made almost 70 percent of her shots in the WNBA Finals against Indiana, leading the Lynx to their third title in five years while winning the series MVP award.
So going into this season, Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen, a former NBA power forward who coaches the Lynx's post players, set out to help Fowles improve ... her shooting.
Sound crazy? Not if you broke down Fowles' game the way Petersen did.
Lynx assistants Petersen and Shelley Patterson split scouting and game-planning duties, and Chicago is one of Peterson's assignments. Coming into this season, Fowles led the WNBA in shooting percentage four times in her eight seasons and boasted a .577 career mark. But Petersen and others around the league noted how often the 6-foot-6 Fowles, a strong inside presence who dunked in high school, misfired near the rim.
From 2008 to 2013, Fowles shot anywhere from .636 to .692 inside of 5 feet, according to Lynx and Timberwolves statistician Paul Swanson. But the past two seasons, her percentage in that range fell off significantly, to .586 in 2014 and .580 with the Lynx in 2015.
"One of the things on the scouting report when she was in Chicago was, if you balled up and played aggressively against her, she would miss point-blank shots," Petersen said. "If you were aggressive enough without fouling, you could make her miss half the time at the rim. Even though she's been among the league leaders in field goal percentage every year she's been in the league, she could still do better."
So Fowles reported here two weeks before training camp to work with Lindsay Whalen, Renee Montgomery and offseason acquisitions Jia Perkins (from San Antonio) and Natasha Howard (Indiana). That allowed coach Cheryl Reeve and her staff to teach Fowles the finer points of their defensive system, then adjust the offense to fit her low-post skills and speed.
Her shooting inside 5 feet has improved (.615 through July 10) but still lags behind her best years in Chicago. Fowles converted four conventional three-point plays among 21 points in an 89-81 victory over Phoenix on June 7, 11 days after missing all seven shots and going scoreless against Indiana.
Overall, she ranks sixth in the WNBA in field goal percentage at .575 while averaging 12.9 points (22nd), 8.5 rebounds (fourth) and 1.7 blocks (fourth) for the 19-4 Lynx. In Sunday's overtime win over Dallas, Fowles grabbed a season-high 19 rebounds, matched her season high with four blocks and notched her fifth double-double of the season.
"Sylvia has been dominant inside," Indiana coach Stephanie White said, "and that gives them a different dimension than they've had in the past."
Last season Fowles never played for Chicago, forcing a trade, and wasn't in basketball shape when the Lynx acquired her July 27. This time, she was ready to go.
Fowles said it helped that this is the first offseason in seven years that she wasn't nursing an injury.
"Last offseason I was just riding my bike, keeping my wind up and stuff like that," she said. "This year I had the chance to do everything. I got to run, do some post-up work with Jim Pete and Wes [Bohn, the video coordinator], and all that other good stuff. It made a big difference coming here early and getting it in."
Said Petersen: "We had to learn as much about involving Syl in our offense, because we've never had anything like that before.
"For us it's about putting her in position to be successful, and once she gets in that situation, to be focused and finish. That's a lot of the drill work we're doing, getting her in double-team situations to read defenses better. She hasn't always had great vision to execute in double-team situations. That's been our focus: reading and reacting, and playing with our great players."
Traditionally, Lynx centers serve as facilitators at the elbow -- passing, setting high-post screens, crashing the boards, taking an occasional midrange jumper to pull defenders out of the lane. Fowles does some of that now. More often she sets up in the low block, drawing defenders, scoring herself or finding teammates such as Maya Moore and Whalen cutting to the basket.
"Working on double-teams has been one of our focal points, passing out to the right person, not getting my ball stolen or deflected," Fowles said. "So every time I get double-teamed and make a good pass out, I'm like, phew. And it's about not rushing. It's being patient and making sure you make the right pass."
The Lynx also encourage Fowles to run the floor on the fast break, Robert Parish-style. In Fowles, Howard and Rebekkah Brunson, Reeve thinks she has the fastest set of bigs in the league.
"Sylvia on the move is pretty intimidating, a pretty forceful moving object," Reeve said. "She's so athletic and has so many gifts she knows how to use. You don't only want to be a 6-foot-6 center that can only play on the block, because you're going to get pounded and double-teamed every night. That takes a lot out of you physically.
"We'll put her down on the block some. She probably scores half her stuff in that area. But we're also putting her in ball-screen situations where she's receiving a pass, called a pocket pass, and she has to make a decision. Am I going to make the next pass out to the perimeter, or take it and go score? That's all new for her. And I think Syl's done great."