Lynx Forward Napheesa Collier Starting to Separate Herself in WNBA Rookie of the Year Race

(image credit: screenshot from WNBA on YouTube)

Heading into the 2019 WNBA season, the Minnesota Lynx were in search for a new face to step up while dealing with three of its All-Star’s and future Hall of Fame players in Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson absent from the team.

As it turns out, the new face that has done just that for the Lynx so far this summer has yet to complete a full season in the WNBA.

Since being selected by Minnesota with the No. 6 overall pick in this past April’s WNBA Draft, Lynx rookie Napheesa Collier has played a large role into helping her team hang onto a spot in the playoff race nearing the end of the regular season.

As a result of her play this year, Collier has pushed her name atop, or at the very least near the top, of many people’s list for the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

“ROY, a.k.a. Napheesa Collier. She played great,” Lynx center Sylvia Fowles said of the forward. “We don’t have to ask her to step outside of herself to do anything, she pretty much lets the game come to her and she played great from start to finish.”

Entering the weekend, Collier has appeared in all 29 games for Minnesota this season, starting in every one of those games. She is averaging 12.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.7 blocks in 32.7 minutes per game. Collier has also been able to shoot 47.5 percent from the field, 31.9 percent from 3 and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line.

RELATED: Is Rookie of the Year the Next Accolade for Napheesa Collier?

Although the Rookie of the Year talk is heating up around Collier, she’s not focused on if she does or doesn’t win the award. But rather, she’s more worried about her team performs on the court to finish out the regular season schedule and in the postseason.

“Our home games are especially important for us and the (Rookie of the Year) stuff is kind of off the court things to worry about,” Collier said. “Once you get on (the court), you’re worrying about how you can help your team win and what we need to do to execute our gameplan.”

Separating Herself From the Rest of the Pack 

On Thursday night at Target Center, Collier and the Lynx went up against the Dallas Wings and another Rookie of the Year candidate in Arike Ogunbowale. Down the home stretch of the regular season, Collier and Ogunbowale have been two players many believe the award will come down to at year’s end.

Ogunbowale, who was selected just ahead of Collier by Dallas with the No. 5 overall pick in April’s draft, was likely on Minnesota’s radar as its selection if the Wings would have chosen someone other than the dynamic player out of Notre Dame.

Ogunbowale ended up going to the Wings, which in return opened the door for the Lynx in choosing Collier out of Connecticut with the next pick.

On Thursday in downtown Minneapolis, the two players in their rookie campaigns squared off against each other, with the Lynx escaping with an 86-70 victory over the Wings.

In the contest, both rookies showcased their impressive offensive abilities, both nearly tallying 20 points a piece. But Collier managed to put together a more all-around performance compared to Ogunbowale, and might have even started to separate herself from the rest of the pack as the frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year honor.

“I think Napheesa’s having a great year. She’s playing well and she’s playing a great role for Minnesota. She does a lot of things for them in a positive way,” Dallas head coach Brian Agler said after the game. “My hat’s off to (Collier), for as much attention as she gets and her ability to still produce, that says a lot. She has greatness in her future.”

In the win, Collier finished with a team-best 19 points, five rebounds and four steals for the Lynx. In nearly 35 minutes, she shot 6 of 11 from the field and went a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line while tallying a plus/minus of plus-13.

“Obviously our rookie was even better, 19 points, five rebounds and four steals. She just does it all,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said post-game. “I thought (Thursday’s game) was a statement game for Napheesa.”

Ogunbowale also led the way for her team, grabbing a team-high 22 points and three assists in over 37 minutes on the court. While shooting 6 for 14 from the field, Ogunbowale did record a plus/minus of minus-19 for Dallas.

“How aggressive she is, I think she has the mentality that no matter what is going on she is going to be aggressive and know what is going on,” Collier said of Ogunbowale after the matchup. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that rookies probably struggle with is transferring and keeping their confidence high. It’s kind of like being a freshman again. Because she doesn’t have that problem, I think that’s why she’s been able to do so well.”

Outside of outshining one of her peers in the game on Thursday, Collier has notched multiple other accomplishments this year that makes her a prime Rookie of the Year candidate.

While earning the WNBA’s Rookie of the Month award during the month of July, the forward was the lone rookie representative to take part in the league’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas in late July.

She has also shown the ability to play at a consistent level for a majority of the year, which isn’t very common with players in their first season.

RELATED: “We Got the Best Rookie:” Collier Thriving in Rookie Year 

“I think it’s easy, because we play games so close together you have no choice to think about what just happened but look forward to what is going to happen,” Collier said of trying to stay consistent night-in and night-out this summer. “Focus on what you need to do to prepare and get ready for the next thing because you can’t go back.”

With the regular season winding down and the race to the playoffs in full swing, the Lynx will need Collier to continue to display her stellar, and potentially Rookie of the Year-caliber, play for the remainder of the summer.

But as a new face who has stepped up for Minnesota all season long, the rookie’s confidence is sky high and she’s ready to take on the challenge of leading her team into the postseason for a ninth consecutive year when the playoffs kick off in the middle of September.

“I think you have to have confidence in your game and who you are as a player,” Collier said. “You feel like a freshman again, but you get through it a lot quicker because you have so much experience under your belt now. Just staying confident in who you are.”

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