With a decent amount of turnover throughout the offseason, the Minnesota Lynx were heading into a new season on Saturday looking for some new faces to step up into big roles.
As Minnesota kicked off the 2019 WNBA season against the Chicago Sky at Target Center, it took the floor without notable All-Star cornerstone players from years past such as Maya Moore (taking a year off from the WNBA), Lindsay Whalen (retirement) and Rebekkah Brunson (recovering from a concussion).
The Lynx were also without veteran Seimone Augustus and starting wing Karima Christmas-Kelly, who were both sidelined for the opener due to knee injuries.
That forced Minnesota to look elsewhere within its rotation to help grab an 89-71 victory over Chicago on Saturday night.
Two notable and somewhat surprising — yet certainly capable — players who stepped up immediately for the Lynx were their rookie duo of Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard.
Collier, who was the No. 6 pick out of Connecticut in this year’s draft, got the nod in the starting lineup in place of Christmas-Kelly in her first regular-season game.
As the game progressed, Collier didn’t look so much like a rookie in the game. She had an impressive outing to start her Lynx career, leading the way with a game-high 27 points, six rebounds, three blocks, two steals and had a plus-minus of plus-28 in 33 minutes.
Her 27 points were the most by any player in her WNBA debut since Candace Parker tallied 34 points in 2008 for Los Angeles.
“We really started throwing the ball inside to (Napheesa). We were fortunate. We were able to get the ball where we wanted it to get to,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve told the media following Saturday’s win. “And again, her confidence. She’s worked really hard on her shot. So that was really fun, to see her have some go down. … Not a bad rookie showing.”
Along with her offensive outburst, Collier was solid on the defensive end of the floor as well. With her three blocks, she tied Minnesota’s franchise record for most blocks in the opener, tying Nicky Anosike who had three blocks in the 2010 season opener.
“I think I just realized tonight that I was starting, the team was counting on me,” Collier told the media after Saturday’s game. “I needed to go out there and play as aggressively as I can, so I wouldn’t be a liability for the team. I just tried to go out there and play as hard as I could.”
Shepard also played a large role in the win for the Lynx in her WNBA debut. Even though her offensive stats weren’t eye-popping, she impacted the game in numerous different ways off the bench to provide Minnesota with a spark among the second unit.
The No. 16 overall pick out of Notre Dame finished the game with an all-around effort of three points, a game-high 13 rebounds, a game-best six assists and was a plus-minus of plus-13 in 27 minutes.
Shepard’s 13 rebounds were the most by any player in her WNBA debut since DeTrina White achieved the feat in 2004 in New York.
“I think, for me, I knew I missed a couple bunnies, so I just wanted to make it up rebounding,” Shepard told the media after the game. “To me, rebounding is effort, so anytime I can get in there and get the rebound and get my team those extra chances, that’s what I try to do.”
Collier and Shepard will both get many more opportunities to continue to step up for the Lynx this season within Reeve’s system. A challenge and opportunity they both look ready to take on.
“I think playing at Notre Dame, we played against some of the best players. I’m going against Bri Turner, who’s in the league, too. I think that definitely gets you ready, but I also think just the confidence that (Coach Reeve) has in us rookies,” Shepard said after Saturday’s game. “When you can go in there and play comfortably, and not be worried about making one mistake and coming out, it makes it a lot easier.”
Sure, it was just the first game out of 34 games the two rookies hope to take part in during the 2019 regular season. But for a franchise like Minnesota that is entering a new era and one that is in transition after being an annual championship contender for the past near-decade, having its young players step up and stand out so early on in their careers — at least so far — is very encouraging.