Coming into the 2019 WNBA season, Napheesa Collier and the Minnesota Lynx were in fairly similar positions.
About six months ago leading up to the WNBA Draft, the two sides weren’t exactly sure how their futures would look or where they might be by year’s end.
Collier, finishing up her stellar collegiate career at Connecticut after four years with the program, was entering a new phase in her basketball career while not knowing which team would select her in the draft or in which city and state she would be playing in.
Minnesota, on the other hand, found out it would be without future Hall-of-Fame players Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore — eventually adding Rebekkah Brunson to that list — going into the new season, putting the picture of where the franchise would go from there out of focus.
Fast forward a half-dozen months later with the 2019 campaign now in the rear-view mirror, the vision and future for both Collier and the Lynx are much clearer.
And the biggest piece in the middle of it all is the soon-to-be 23-year-old forward.
“I see the foundation here (in Minnesota). Napheesa Collier is obviously the face of the team, and I’m happy with that,” Lynx veteran guard Seimone Augustus said at the end of the season. “You see what she’s capable of doing and being that leader for the next generation of future Lynx players.”
Finding Her Sense of Belonging
After Collier was selected by Minnesota with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft in April, the 6-foot-1 forward quickly found herself thrown into the mix with her new professional squad.
With many familiar faces absent from the Lynx locker room heading into the summer, Collier was forced to adapt quickly to the next level that is the WNBA while still trying to get acclimated to the league.
“I think there was definitely a learning curve coming in, it’s a lot different than college. The pace that you play at, there are a lot of amazing players that you play with and against,” Collier said. “There was a learning curve, but thanks to my teammates and my coaching staff, they made it really easy for me to catch up so I felt ready for that first game.”
From the get-go in the regular season, Collier didn’t carry herself like a typical rookie and her play on the court in the first game of the year reflected that.
In her season debut, Collier tallied a season-best 27 points, securing the second-highest point total for any player in her WNBA debut since Candace Parker scored 34 in her debut in 2008. From that point on, her high-quality play didn’t slow down.
Along with putting on a show in front of her new home crowd in the season opener, Collier felt like she found out in that game that she is right where she belonged in the league.
“In the preseason I kind of felt like I was playing catch-up and trying to get with that learning curve,” she said. “That first game, having a good game like I did, I felt like I finally belonged and I was finding my place on the team.”
Little did Collier and the Lynx know, that was just the beginning for the impressive, young rookie forward.
Rookie of the Year
On Monday, Collier officially got word regarding something many around the league expected would come as the regular season schedule wrapped up this summer.
Along with numerous other milestones and accomplishments recorded throughout her first season in the league and in Minnesota, Collier was named the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year, becoming the fourth Lynx player and first since Moore in 2011 to claim the honor.
“I was really excited,” Collier said on finding out she was named Rookie of the Year. “It was a goal is set out for myself this year and something that I worked really hard for throughout the year. To learn that I had received the award, I was really honored and excited.
“This award means a lot to me. … This draft class is extremely talented and it was one heck of a race, a little bit too close for my liking to be honest.”
Being named the WNBA’s top rookie capped off a year where Collier averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks while starting in all 34 games for the Lynx. Among rookies, she ranked second in scoring, rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage, while leading the rookie class in steals and ranking fourth in the league in that category.
“I hate to say that the sky is the limit, because it’s beyond that. Napheesa is a player that works really hard and she’s a player that is very mature at her age and where she is at in her career,” Augustus said. “She’s going to grow. I think she could be one of the most versatile players that we have seen in a very long time if she continues to develop.”
Along with the Rookie of the Year honor, Collier added that to a lengthy list of accolades including earning the Western Conference Rookie of the Month during July and getting selected as the only rookie to play in this year’s All-Star Game, the first Lynx rookie to do so since Moore in 2011.
She also recorded over 400 points, 200 rebounds, 75 assists, 50 steals 25 blocks and made at least 25 3-pointers during her rookie season, becoming the fourth player in league history to accomplish that, joining Moore, Tamika Catchings and Sheryl Swoopes.
“(The season) went by so fast. Even when we were in the moment, it felt like it was going by fast which isn’t always the case with things,” Collier said. “I had a great year this year and I am so blessed to be on this team. I couldn’t have asked to be in a better position than what I was in here this year.”
When Minnesota drafted Collier back in April, it’s hard to have envisioned her rookie season going any better than it did. And for Collier, she’s grateful to be in the position she is in right now while trying to continue to grow for the future.
“I think it is really easy to be a part of this team. We had so many new people, and I’m sure it wasn’t easy for the people that were here before, but they did a great job in preparing us and making sure that we knew what was expected of us,” she said. “I think this is just the beginning for us and I can’t wait to get started here (in Minnesota).”
With the direction and the future of the franchise in question heading into the season just a few months ago, Collier and the Lynx are back on the right track advancing into the offseason.
And the pairing between the franchise and its new centerpiece is something we should get used to seeing in Minnesota for a long time.
“At this point, Napheesa shouldn’t surprise us. She’s able to have some of her best moments in big moments.” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said. “That’s great news for our franchise, just great news.
“I think Napheesa Collier gives us a really bright future.”