They are three of the greatest players in women’s basketball history. They have each won multiple WNBA championships and Olympic gold medals, helped grow the league and transcended WNBA records. And one of them turns 40 on Saturday.
Diana Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird have redefined several statistical categories in the WNBA. But their dominance is most evident at the top of three of the biggest stats in the game: Taurasi is the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader, Fowles is the all-time rebounding leader and Bird is the all-time assists leader.
While longevity has played a part in their paths to the top — Taurasi is in her 18th WNBA season, Fowles in her 15th and Bird her 19th — sustained excellence has set them apart. Bird, a 5-foot-9 guard for the Seattle Storm, turns 42 in October, and Fowles, a 6-6 Minnesota Lynx center, turns 37 that same month.
As Taurasi, a 6-0 guard for the Phoenix Mercury, turns 40, we take a look at each player’s run to the record, the other WNBA legends they’ve passed along the way and the players who are behind them on the scoring, rebounding and assist charts.
Taurasi: A scorer like no other
Taurasi, who says she has no plans to retire any time soon, is largely regarded as the greatest player in women’s basketball history. Voted the GOAT last year by fans as the WNBA celebrated its 25th season — and ranked as the No. 1 all-time player in WNBA history by an ESPN panel last September — Taurasi is known for two distinct characteristics as a scorer. She possesses an amazingly quick and effortless-looking release no matter where she’s shooting from on the court. And she has complete faith that she should be the one to take the shot no matter how high the stakes.
Even for someone like Taurasi, who has so often been counted on to take game-winning shots, you have to accept she will also miss some of them. But Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion and the 2009 regular-season MVP, has never shied away from that responsibility.
And she has largely lived up to it. The No. 1 draft pick in 2004, Taurasi is a five-time WNBA scoring champion, the only player in league history to score at least 600 points in six consecutive seasons and the only player to record 800 points in a season on multiple occasions (2006, 2008). Taurasi also owns WNBA career records for made field goals, 3-point field goals, scoring average in a season (25.3) and points in a season (860).
Taurasi became the league’s leading scorer on June 18, 2017, passing Tina Thompson — who scored 7,488 points in 496 career games — in her 377th career game.
It’s a record that might never be matched. Taurasi has averaged 15-plus points per game in 15 different seasons of her career, the most of any player in league history. And twice this season she has scored at least 30 points, becoming the oldest player in the league to do so.
Taurasi has now scored 1,856 more points than any other player in regular-season history. And as ESPN Stats & Information notes, the difference between Taurasi and runner-up Thompson is a larger gap than Thompson and Angel McCoughtry, who ranks 16th (difference of 1,691 points).
Perhaps the only question that remains is whether Taurasi, who has 9,344 points, can score another 656 points to get to 10,000.
Taurasi is averaging 15.5 PPG this season; if she hits that average every game going forward, she would need 42 regular-season games to reach 10,000 career points, per ESPN Stats & Information. If, however, Taurasi can match her 19.3 PPG career scoring average, it would take 33 regular-season games to get to 10,000 points, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Phoenix has played 11 games so far in 2022 of an expanded 36-game regular season. If Taurasi stays healthy and doesn’t miss any games, and maintains or reaches either of the above scoring averages, she could top 10,000 career points at some point next season.
(Note: Candice Dupree, who hasn’t officially retired but has not played a game in 2022, is the next closest active player on the scoring charts with 6,895 points, good for fourth overall. Phoenix Mercury center Tina Charles ranks sixth at 6,749. Third-place Tamika Catchings at 7,380 points and Cappie Pondexter at 6,811 round out the top five.)
Fowles: A dominant force around the rim
Fowles has said this is her final season, but her rebounding is as dominant as ever: She’s the only player in the league averaging a double-double (16.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG) this season.
Fowles’ rebounding prowess has never been just about her size and strength, although both are prodigious. She has textbook positioning and plays like an old-style center who refuses to give up her space on the low block. You’ll never see Fowles — a two-time WNBA champion and the 2017 regular-season MVP — drift away from contact; she always embraces it and almost always wins the battle.
Defense is such a big part of Fowles’ game. Of her 3,836 total rebounds, 2,743 have come on the defensive end. But when considering her 1,092 offensive boards, it’s important to remember she has shot a WNBA-record 59.8% from the field for her career. Whether with her own accuracy or dominance on the glass, she simply eliminates so many opportunities for second-chance points for her opponents.
A four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, Fowles has been a consistent rebounder and equally effective whether she has had to be an anchor on her own or paired with another strong post player. Fowles and former Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, another outstanding rebounder, were as ferocious a rebounding duo as the WNBA has ever seen, helping the Lynx win titles in 2015 and 2017 (Fowles was Finals MVP both times). On July 28, 2020, in the second game of the bubble season in Bradenton, Florida, Fowles’ 3,357th career rebound moved her past Brunson for the WNBA career record.
Another big element to Fowles’ sustained success: In spite of playing such a physical style, she has largely avoided injury. A calf injury limited Fowles — who also holds WNBA single-season records for rebounds (404), defensive rebounds (282) and rebounds per game (11.9) — to seven games in 2020, but that was the first significant time she had missed since joining the Lynx in 2015.
On Thursday, however, the Lynx announced that Fowles is out indefinitely with a cartilage injury in her right knee. Through 12 games, she’s leading the league in rebounds per game and field goal percentage (64.1), and also averaging 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks.
Right now, Fowles is on pace for her fifth season averaging at least 15 points and 10 rebounds and shooting at least 60% from the field. Per ESPN Stats & Information, no other player in WNBA history has had even one such season — and Fowles would tie Naismith Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore for the most such seasons in WNBA or NBA history (he had five as well). Fowles was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 WNBA draft.
Bird: The ultimate distributor and leader
Like all great point guards, Bird has exceptional court vision and a high level of decisiveness, which are imperative if you are the floor general. But a few other things really set apart the four-time WNBA champion as one of the greatest point guards of all time, men or women, at any level.
Bird, who has said all signs point to 2022 being her final season, doesn’t just know the game, she feels it. That means that although she knows the playbook inside and out, she also understands the wrinkles and adjustments that come when you’re in the flow of the game.
Like Taurasi, Bird has established an all-time assists mark that might be hard to top. Bird currently has 3,100 assists, and the next active player, the Chicago Sky‘s Courtney Vandersloot, ranks fourth with 2,254 assists, behind retired Ticha Penicheiro (2,600) and Lindsay Whalen (2,345). Taurasi checks in at No. 5 (2,079).
Bird is averaging 6.5 assists per game this season, and if she maintains that pace for 2022, it would mark her WNBA-record 15th season averaging at least 5.0 APG. The next closest is Penicheiro’s nine such seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Fifteen seasons of five-plus APG would also tie her with the NBA’s Steve Nash and Mark Jackson as the fifth-most such seasons in NBA or WNBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only LeBron James and John Stockton (19 apiece), Jason Kidd (18) and Chris Paul (17) have more.
Bird has said it took her years to fine-tune the nuances of managing teammates’ games and personalities, and that along the way she made a few mistakes. But the fundamental skill of directing others to be their best ability has always been a Bird strength.
In fact, leadership is perhaps her most valuable quality. Bird has always taken time to understand her teammates as players and people, but she does it very low-key and never shows up anyone on the court. She is able to get her point across and even discipline her teammates in a way that is respected. People want to follow Bird’s leadership, and that has been true of every team she has ever been on, from UConn to the Storm to the U.S. women’s national team.
Bird, who is a three-time regular-season assist leader, passed Penicheiro for the WNBA’s all-time record on Aug. 1, 2017, with her 2,600th assist. She also holds the WNBA mark in career regular-season starts (557). Bird, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 WNBA draft, has never come off the bench in her career.