by Ben York
In the history of women’s basketball there is a small, select group of influential women who have become household names due to their legendary game. When Australian forward Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm scored her 5,000th point in record time, not only did she carve a place for herself in the annals of WNBA history, she presented a justifiable opportunity to raise the proverbial question – when all is said and done, could Lauren Jackson be regarded as the best female basketball player of all time?
It’s now undeniably a legitimate question, and irresponsible not to address.
“She’s as good as there’s been and I still think her best days are ahead of her,” says Seattle Storm head coach Brian Agler. “She’s only 28 and I think the next four years are going to be her wheel house.”
Where does Jackson currently rank among the all-time greats, despite her young age?
• 4th in total career points
• 6th in total career rebounds
• 4th in total field goals made
• 5th in total free throws made
• 3rd in total blocks
• 11th in three-pointers made
• Tied 5th in average rebounds per game
• 4th in average points per game
Perhaps what is more astonishing is that Lauren could feasibly play another 5-8 years in the league (or more if she’s healthy) which could translate into complete domination of the WNBA record books.
Lauren’s parents both were members of the Australian national team in the 70s. Thus, Lauren (or LJ, as she’s commonly referred to) was exposed to basketball at a high level from an early age. At the ripe young age of 20 in 2001, LJ started her illustrious career in America by getting drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Seattle Storm. Wasting no time making her presence felt LJ led all rookies in scoring, rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes which earned her a reserve spot on the Western Conference All-Star team and was runner up for the WNBA Rookie of the Year award.
At 6-5, Lauren towers over a majority of her competition which is an obvious asset in the WNBA. But it was clear from the start that she was much more than just a tall body. Offensively, her game very much mirrors Dirk Nowitzki with her ability to be a threat on all areas of the court; whether she’s positioned in the paint or along the perimeter, opposing teams need to know where she is at all times. She’s also proven to be a viable intimidator defensively by winning the WNBA’s Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007.
Like Dirk, Lauren’s greatest strength is her offensive versatility. LJ has always been an effective shooter with a career average upwards of 46 percent from the floor, but she can also spread the defense out with her long-range efficiency (a career 36 percent shooter from the three-point line). Lauren also has consistently tallied close to 10 rebounds and 2 blocks on a nightly basis for almost a decade.
“She’s such a factor on both ends of the floor,” says Agler. “I’ve been around a lot of great players and she matches all the really great ones with her work ethic, mentality, and all the intangible things that you need to have.”
To Jackson’s credit, in addition to her physical ability, she makes a point to conduct herself with dignity and honor on the floor, which only adds to her popularity.
“Every time you step out on the court, you’re representing someone,” Lauren says about her competitive spirit. “Whether it is for a country, a team, or myself – I always try to go into every game with the same focus and set of goals.”
On August 15, 2009 Lauren Jackson scored career point number 5,000 in the WNBA. But what really sets this feat apart from others was how fast she was able to attain this milestone. Only three other players in the 13-year history of the WNBA have scored 5,000 or more points (Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Katie Smith) and Lauren was able to surpass the mark in just 259 games and at the age of 28. Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, scored point 5,000 at the age of 33 (about five years older than Jackson) and in almost 30 more games (287).
Knowing this, why isn’t the lovable Australian mentioned more freely in the discussion of the best women’s basketball players ever?
If winning championships and MVPs are a prerequisite to be included in the debate, she certainly has more than met the criteria. Jackson has led several teams to championships in multiple countries (U.S., Russia and Australia), has two silver medals in the Olympics, a gold medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, and won two Most Valuable Player awards in the WNBA.
If the requirements lie in more of a quantifiable statistical nature, the way Lauren Jackson attained the 5,000 point mark was quite remarkable.
• She was the youngest and fastest player to reach the milestone.
• She took 259 games to do so. Lisa Leslie, the previous fastest, took 287 games.
• Jackson accomplished the feat at the age of 28 years, 96 days old. Tina Thompson was the previous youngest to do it at 33 years and 117 days.
• Leslie then took 61 games to surpass 6,000 career points (348 games total) which is roughly an average of 16.4 points per game.
• Jackson has averaged 19.4 points per game over her career. At that rate, it would take Jackson 47 games to reach 6,000 points, putting her at 310 games. She would smash Leslie’s mark by 38 games, which would allow her to score 737.2 more points given her current career average.
• Jackson is about five years younger than Tina Thompson was when she scored her 5,000th career point. If Jackson played a full season in each of those five years, she could score another 3,298 points if she maintains her 19.4 points per game average by the time she reaches Thompson’s age at her 5,000th point.
• Jackson was the youngest and second fastest to score her 4,000th point (209 games, 26 years, 77 days old; 197 games – Diana Taurasi) and 3,000th point (25 years, 27 days old and 162 games; 151 – Diana Taurasi). She was the youngest player and third-fastest to 2,000 career points (109 games; 90 – Cynthia Cooper, 104 – Diana Taurasi).
• Jackson also reached 2,000 career rebounds in 254 games this past year, making her the third-fastest player to as many rebounds and the youngest to the mark.
• Jackson became the second fastest player to 4,000 career points (254 games) and 2,000 career rebounds (Lisa Leslie, 230 games).
This doesn’t even include what she’s been able to accomplish on the global level in both her native country of Australia and her off-season career spent in Russia. Though, in spite of all her international success, her heart is in the U.S.
“The WNBA and America has become my home,” says Jackson. “I’m definitely very settled here. Playing in America is on a much higher level than international play in terms of professionalism and day to day practice — it’s the best league in the world.”
At what point does it become ludicrous not to include Lauren in the conversation of the best ever? It’s becoming clearer by the day that at the end of their careers, Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi (who in six seasons has 4,000 points is also fast on her way to the 5,000 point club) could be known as the two best female basketball players ever to play the game.
Admittedly, it’s somewhat of a difficult assertion for those that never had the chance to truly play in the WNBA, such as Cheryl Miller, who is maybe the most gifted and well-known women’s basketball player of all time. Yet it shouldn’t negate or discount Lauren’s accomplishments and achievements, or the potential she has to truly make an indelible mark in the history of women’s athletics.
As the league continues to grow and develop, it becomes exponentially more important for players like Jackson to excel and be appreciated. We are entering what could be known as one of the best decades of competitive women’s basketball ever and bona fide superstars are beginning to re-write the record books and make an imprint on the game itself.
Not surprisingly, with Jackson’s humble personality, she doesn’t place much emphasis on the title.
“People have their opinions on what makes a great player or one of the best players in the world,” Jackson says. “I mean, I definitely want to be remembered as one of the greatest but there are so many people who impact the game differently, it just depends on what people classify as the best.”
The WNBA is facing an important turning point in its 13-year history and beginning to truly be respected. Corporations and sponsors now see the immense value and significance of the WNBA and are making more of an investment into the future success of the league (such as LifeLock’s multi-million dollar sponsorship of the Phoenix Mercury). Clearly, commitments of this magnitude would not be made if the league was stale, stagnant, or not on the cusp of taking off – and it’s a direct correlation with the success of popular and gifted players like Lauren Jackson.
Still, there is unfortunately a ways to go before it unequivocally reaches the pinnacle of mainstream.
Having Lauren as a legendary face of women’s basketball for years to come would go a long way to enhance and benefit the future of the WNBA, and help garner further respect not just for women’s basketball, but women’s athletics as a whole. Not only is she a gym-rat and great teammate, she conducts herself with grace, poise, and is an advocate of giving back to the community and improving the lives of women across the globe. She volunteers in domestic violence shelters and has expressed interest in being a social worker when her basketball career ends.
“There are a lot of people out there who are less fortunate than we are as basketball players,” Jackson said about her passion to give back. “Just being able to help out whether it’s giving money to a homeless person, doing camps, helping kids, or helping in battered women’s shelters; there’s so many people who need help out there and for just a few minutes to give people hope, it’s a special thing.”
Positive role models, like Jackson, add to the magical aura of the WNBA where fans feel a deep sense of belonging and very much a big part of things. They have a direct and accessible connection with players who embrace and enjoy that relationship. Lauren has generated, through her warm personality and work ethic, a large fan-base not just in Seattle, but throughout the entire league and world.
Perhaps the person who knows the greatness of Lauren best is fellow teammate, and best friend, Sue Bird. The two have formed an almost inseparable bond both on and off the court throughout the years they’ve played together in Seattle and Russia. As Sue puts it, they’ve not only made each other better players, but also better women.
“You can see the growth both in our friendship and as teammates,” Bird says. “We play together here [Seattle] and in Russia so we’re together pretty much year round. As time has gone on our relationship has matured both on and off the court so it’s been a great thing.”
It’s increasingly difficult to define the significance of Jackson’s feat with so many varying opinions and preconceived notions in a league that has only been around for 13 short years. It does, however, become undeniably important to the future of the WNBA as players like Lauren continue to create a following and a reason for non-fans to give the league an unbiased chance. Jackson has set a perfect example for young women to follow in her footsteps and most importantly, feel valued and capable of doing so.
“To be in the company of these greats, it’s unreal,” says a very humble Jackson about the 5,000 point mark. “I didn’t realize it was that special until it happened.”
Looking back in many years, Jackson’s achievements in such a short amount of time will prove to be one of the proud moments in the history of the WNBA, not necessarily for the accomplishment itself, but for the way Jackson did it — as a loving teammate, friend, and example to young women across the globe.
As cliché as it sounds, the sky is the limit to what Jackson could accomplish when her career comes to a close, and there’s a good chance she’ll shatter many more previously long-held records. So while the pundits continue to profess the greatness of other flashier, more high-profile stars, Jackson continues her dominance in a selfless manner.
Lauren Jackson – the best women’s basketball player of all time?
It has a nice ring to it…