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Teaira McCowan’s Potential in the Paint

ByMyles Ehrlich|@MylesEhrlich| July 8, 2021
teaira-mccowan-wnba

In the midst of her third WNBA season, Teaira McCowan continues to fill the lane in Indianapolis. She is the current face of the Indiana Fever, who have languished in the lottery throughout Teaira’s pro career, though at no fault of her own. It’s a team in transition, with some eyebrow-raising roster construction and a mix of veteran talent and young lottery picks.

Teaira, a 6’7” center out of Mississippi State, is charged with protecting the paint and cleaning the glass. Since being drafted third overall in 2019, she’s been among the league leaders in rebounding, but hasn’t always seen consistent time on the court.

With her team barreling towards its fifth straight season missing the playoffs, the Fever have come under fire: does this drought lie more at the feet of the front office or the on-court personnel? For her part, Teaira has continued to work each season, though she’s seen varying returns in her development. So today, we’ll explore her basketball journey, from her childhood up through the pros.

Teaira McCowan’s basketball evolution

Teaira McCowan, born on September 28, 1996 to Tracy Nunn and Dayronn McCowan, grew up in Bryan, Texas. She has three brothers, all of whom caught her flat-footed when they surprised her with a video message at the 2019 WNBA Draft. 

As a teen, Teaira struggled to adapt to her height. By the time she’d reached middle school, she was 6’7″ – a full foot taller than each of her parents. “[My height] was something that I carried as a burden for so long,” Teaira told SLAM. “I didn’t really like to be stared at or pointed at or people were taking pictures of me. That was really hard for me to adjust to… I can’t have people looking at me like I’m some type of freak or something.”

It was through sports that Teaira began to settle into herself, and to grow confidence with who she was. She attended Brenham High School, where she first participated in track and field—she finished second in the shot put in the Texas 5A state meet in 2015. Teaira also played a year of volleyball before shifting from hitting over nets to swishing through them.

Teaira went on to play varsity basketball for three seasons and put up gaudy video game numbers. Over 100 games, she averaged 19.1 points per game (PPG) and 18.4 rebounds per game (RPG) to go along with 4.5 blocks per game (BPG). As a result, she owns her school’s records for both single-game and career blocks. Here’s a sampling of some of Teaira’s top performances during her time as a Brenham Cub.

Teaira McCowan's high school basketball stats

Teaira won a handful of honors while at Brenham, including 2014 All-Texas second team, several All-Region honors, and both District 18-4A MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. She was ranked a five-star prospect by ESPN, and the number two ranked center across multiple recruiting platforms. Teaira landed at Mississippi State, where she would spend her next four years of development as a Bulldog.

Teaira’s time at Mississippi State

In her freshman season, Tea started just one of her 35 games for the 28-8 Bulldogs. Despite playing only 13.7 minutes per game (MPG), her 5.6 RPG were third on the team behind Chinwe Okorie (6.0 RPG) and Victoria Vivians (5.8 RPG).

Though all of the starting five returned in 2016-2017, Teaira’s court time climbed to 19.7 MPG for Mississippi State, who finished 32-5. Despite playing just the fifth most minutes, she ranked third on the team in scoring (8.7 PPG), while leading the Bulldogs in shooting (56.9 percent) and rebounding (7.1 RPG). 

In Teaira’s junior year, 2017-2018, both she and the program took a leap. Only Victoria (19.8 PPG) averaged a higher scoring output than Teaira (18.2 PPG), but it was T’s rebounding that really set her apart. She pulled down 13.9 RPG, second in the country to George Mason’s Natalie Butler (16.6 RPG). The Bulldogs were a tournament one-seed after losing just one of 33 games heading into the tourney.

They made it all the way to the title and played to the final possession, but were the victims of Arike Ogunbowale’s second straight Final Four buzzer-beater, a high-arching fall-away turnaround that cemented that Notre Dame Fighting Irish team in the record books. Teaira put together a strong performance—18 points and 17 rebounds—but fouled out in the closing seconds of the game.

As a senior, she had one final chance at an NCAA title, and her numbers held strong. For the fourth straight season, she upped her field-goal percentage, this time to 66.2 percent, second in the country behind Iowa’s Megan Gustafson (69.6 percent). Teaira averaged 18.4 points and again finished second in rebounding (13.5 RPG), this time to Cal’s Kristine Anigwe (16.2 RPG).

The 30-2 Bulldogs once again clinched a one-seed in the tournament but lost 88-84 to the Oregon Ducks in an exciting back-and-forth Elite Eight tilt. Sabrina Ionescu (31 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists) and Satou Sabally (22 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks) proved too much for the Bulldogs. Teaira finished her college career with another dominant line: 19 points, 15 rebounds (seven of them on the offensive glass), and four blocks.

“She cleans up a lot of your mess,” teammate Blair Shaefer said earlier in the tournament. “She cleans up your missed shots, your dribble penetration that you give up, blocked shots, altered shots, turn around and get out of there, you know. So her value to our basketball team—you can’t put a price tag on it.”

Teaira McCowan's year to year stats at Mississippi State

Each season, Teaira showed growth nearly across the board, making her a lottery prospect in a difficult draft to predict. With her unique skill set, though, she was sure to make a day-one impact.

Teaira McCowan & the 2019 WNBA draft

After the lottery balls bounced their ways, the Las Vegas Aces landed their third consecutive first overall pick for the 2019 WNBA Draft. Their selection from the previous year—reigning Rookie-of-the-Year at the time and current MVP A’ja Wilson—had the Aces feeling secure with their future development in the post, so they took Jackie Young, fresh off her championship with Notre Dame. The New York Liberty, picking second, had Tina Charles anchoring their post, so they too went with a guard, selecting Asia Durr out of Louisville.

On the clock with the third pick, the Indiana Fever also drafted for need. Coming off a season in which they blocked the fewest shots (92) and were second-to-last in points allowed (85.7 PPG), Indiana needed help down low. “There is one thing you can’t teach,” said Tamika Catchings, VP of Basketball Operations at the time, “and that’s 6’7.””

“The accolades speak for themselves,” said then-Fever GM and coach Pokey Chatman about Teaira.

“You think about her size, the mobility of that size, and someone who loves the defensive side of the basketball, but then she also can impact the offensive side of the basketball with her rebounding and deep positioning. She’s exactly what we needed.”

Another good thing about being drafted to Indiana? A reunion with her college teammate, Vivians. “I’m very excited,” Teaira said at the time. “At Mississippi State, it was always inside out. Tori was always ready to shoot and if they came to guard her she fed it inside. It’s back to old Tori and T just playing together.”

Fast forward to opening night, and Teaira showcased exactly that potential. Facing off against the New York Liberty, in 14 minutes off the bench, the rookie scored 11 points and pulled down six rebounds, five on the offensive glass. Her biggest play of the night, however, came in the last few seconds of the game.

On an out-of-bounds play with just a few seconds to go, veteran Candice Dupree drove to the hoop and flipped a pass to her newest teammate standing under the basket. Teaira, standing directly under the basket, leaned backwards to get an angle and put the shot up and in with her right hand. Game, Fever.

Teaira’s growth in the WNBA

Teaira knows where she’s most effective: as a back-to-the-basket center. In her rookie season, just eight of her 230 field goal attempts came outside the paint. She uses her size to seal well and then her height to shoot over the top.

Teaira McCowan WNBA field goal attempts
2019 Teaira McCowan Field Goal Attempts, courtesy of Positive Residual

For the most part, she’s continued this trend, even with the smallest expansion of her range. As a sophomore in the bubble, 145 of Teaira’s 168 shots came inside. Though she also missed all three of her three-point attempts. In 2021, she’s recommitted to staying inside, with 118 of her 126 shots coming from the paint.

Many of her attempts come off offensive rebounds, where she gets position and battles for quick second-effort baskets. “I’ve added something every summer I’ve been in the league,” Teaira said earlier this season.

“Rebounding is great, it’s the dirty stuff nobody wants to do, so if I can go in and get a couple of rebounds and putbacks, I mean that’s good enough for me.”

Teaira is a rebounding magnet. On any given night, she has the chance to put up a double-double. She’s accomplished the feat 22 times since the start of 2019. Three times in her career, she’s hit the 15-15 plateau, most recently on opening night this season against the Liberty, where she put up 22 and 16 in a last-second loss.

It’s important to note that she’s doing this in limited action too, compared to the other rebounding leaders across the league. A better representation of Teaira’s performance would be to look at her rebounding percentages, to show just how effective she is in her minutes on the court, rather than relying on counting stats.

Teaira McCowan's rebounding percentages and ranks

Teaira McCowan’s awards

  • Set the Indiana Fever record for most rebounds in a season (305) during her rookie campaign
  • Two-time first-team All-American led Mississippi State to national title games in 2017 and 2018
  • Two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year was the inaugural Naismith Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and WBCA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019
  • SEC Player of the Year as a senior
  • NCAA Tournament career rebounding leader (240)
  • SEC & MSU career marks for rebounds (1,502) and double-doubles (70) while leading Bulldogs to consecutive Final Four trips

Teaira’s McCowan’s WNBA strengths

1. Size

You have to start with Teaira’s size: 6’7″ plays in any league in the world. In the WNBA, it demands extra attention. It’s important to note the impact of Teaira’s gravity: the more eyes she draws to the paint, the easier it is for her teammates on the perimeter to get looks. It’s also big for their slashing guards to be able to attack the rim, because secondary defenders are reluctant to release their tether to Teaira and leave her uncovered. 

“She’s an unselfish player, very much so,” Coach Marianne Stanley told Winsidr’s Tristan Tucker. “There were times when it [is] pretty easy for her to score. It’s nice having a player who’s physically imposing and who can command a lot of attention because that helps everybody else that’s out there with her.”

2. Finishing through contact

Finishing in traffic is a real skill. When you’re 6’7″, it comes with keeping the ball high and away from the pesky guards. It’s a small sample size, but so far this season, Teaira ranks second in the WNBA, according to Synergy, when it comes to scoring off hard double teams, making 10 of 14 attempts from the floor. (Those 1.2 points per possession [PPP] trail only Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, who has shot a lower percentage, but is unguardable from everywhere and has hit three threes over doubles.)

The only player who has made more shots off doubles than Teaira is Washington’s resurgent Tina Charles, who has hit 14, but she has missed 18 times to Teaira’s four. Nobody is scoring at a higher percentage in those situations. This is a huge improvement from last season, where she scored just eight points on 20 such possessions, a 0.4 PPP clip.

3. Converting shots in the paint

Teaira’s shot attempts have crept up each season, climbing 0.8 in both the jumps between her second and third seasons. Her shooting percentages have been largely similar from year to year: from 51.7 percent to 53.6 percent to 53.2 percent. Her big leap from her rookie season was in converting those shots inside the paint. From 2019 to 2020, on shots within five feet, Teaira climbed from 56.5 percent up to 67.8 percent. She’s regressed a bit so far this season, back down to 59.8 percent, but the added attempts have mitigated any fall-off, as she’s averaging a career-best 11.0 PPG. If she raises that number back to last year’s mark, the Fever might be able to snap the extended losing streak.

4. Blocks

According to Across The Timeline, Teaira has ranked in the top 10 percent in block percentage in each of her three years as a pro. As Owen Pence pointed out in a 2020 Winsidr piece previewing the Fever, “her shot-blocking a sight to behold. McCowan sported a 4.8 block percentage in 2019, a top ten mark among players who logged at least 200 minutes. That’s the same number posted by Defensive Player of the Year, Natasha Howard.” She can be an intimidating force in the post, but still struggles with foul trouble at times. You can’t teach 6’7″, but you can teach verticality. Indiana is a better team with Teaira patrolling the paint.

5. Great teammate

Teaira seems to be an incredibly fun person and teammate. She’s got a marketable personality on a team that needs stars.

In her adolescence, it took Teaira a while to build up her confidence, but now she’s making sure she’s an example for the young girls behind her who struggle with their self image. In one instance, a high school coach asked her to talk to one of the team’s insecure post players.

“She was sad about her height,” Teaira explained. “‘It’s OK, I’ve been there, it takes time. You have to be comfortable with yourself’ and I just gave her some advice.” Teaira’s willingness to be a role model, coupled with her awareness about some of the issues young athletes face, are so important for the future growth of the WNBA.

Where can Teaira McCowan continue to improve?

1. More minutes

For years, Teaira’s playing time has been maddening for Fever fans. To this point, she’s started just 36 of 71 possible games, and has averaged a frustrating 22.4 MPG. 

To her credit, Teaira is more focused on executing what she needs to while she’s on the court than she is worried about who jumps for the opening tip. “Honestly I don’t care if I come off the bench. I don’t care if I start. Just know that whenever I get in, you know what I’m going to do.”

Teaira is playing a career-high 25.4 MPG this season, which ranks only 46th in the W (and places her in the 62nd percentile, according to Her Hoop Stats). When Candice Dupree and Natalie Achonwa left for Seattle and Minnesota, respectively, this past offseason, it appeared fans would finally see Teaira unleashed. Instead, the Fever signed Jessica Breland (22.3 MPG) and Jantel Lavender (21.9 MPG), who have continued to put Teaira into a timeshare.

2. Consistency

Teaira needs to show improved consistency on both ends of the floor. Thus far in 2021, on the heavily struggling 1-14 Fever, Teaira’s -10.4 mark in net rating is the best mark on the team (excepting Chelsey Perry’s nine minutes played). As a whole, the team average is -16.7. Her 97.3 offensive rating is the best on the team, while her 107.7 defensive rating is in the middle of the pack. 

This has trended slightly downward over her time as a pro, but the lack of roster talent is a major reason why. As a rookie, Teaira was an even 99.3 in both offensive and defensive rating. In 2020, Teaira’s ranks on the team were fourth in offensive rating (102.4), seventh in defensive rating (109.5), and fourth in net rating (-7.2).

3. Foot speed

For Teaira, foot speed on defense is still an area that needs extended focus. This season, according to Synergy, she grades out as an absolutely average defender, in the 50th percentile, surrendering 0.879 PPP. Once you dig into these numbers a little further though, the holes in her defense are more evident.

Teaira is not hesitant to contest, and she’s a very strong defender when using her length to close out on jump shooters. There have been 35 instances where she’s been caught switched onto a three-point shooter, and only 10 of those 35 shots—or 28.6 percent—have gone in. In 2019 and 2020, she also graded out well on jump shooters, finishing in the 91st and 88th percentile, respectively.

Off the dribble, though, she’s giving up nearly a full PPP on jumpers, at 0.917, which puts her in the 33rd percentile. She also struggles on the block or when caught in isolation, or in any similar situations where she’s left in space and someone decides to go around her, rather than over her. Finding that lateral quickness might be the key to playing 30 minutes a night.

What’s next for Teaira McCowan?

Indiana’s hope, when they drafted Teaira out of Mississippi State, was that she would come in and anchor the defense for the next decade to come. To this point, the Fever are 20-51 in the Teaira era, so her personal success has not translated to on-court success. 

The first rounders that have followed her have not panned out so far. The 2020 lotto pick Lauren Cox, a forward who has all the tools to excel in the high-low, has been unable to stay healthy. The Fever recently cut Lauren from the roster ahead of the guaranteed contract deadline. And, while it’s still early in her career, this season’s fourth overall pick, Kysre Gondrezick, has struggled to get it going, scoring just 2.4 PPG on 30.2 percent shooting.

Ahead of this season, the Fever showed their investment in Teaira as their face of the franchise, centering her in their promotional photoshoot, featuring the team’s fan-favorite Stranger Things-themed Rebel jerseys.

By the way, you can keep up with Teaira McCowan all over social media: Twitter @Teaira_15; Instagram @TeairaMcCowan; and TikTok @teaira.mccowan.

Teaira still has the potential to be the full package for Indiana: their center for the next decade, the marketable star, and the rebounding presence. However, for her career to truly take off, the Fever will need to improve the roster surrounding her. There are exciting prospects coming to the WNBA in the next few years, and fortunes flip quickly in a league that is filled with such talented players. For Teaira, who has shown she is capable of the work, winning is the next major career goal. 

Up next, learn more about the history and evolution of the WNBA center position.

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