When she was growing up in Lakeville, Rachel Banham always had the goal of suiting up in the WNBA for her home team.
In 2020, as she kicks off her fifth season in the WNBA, that dream will finally become a reality for the former Minnesota Golden Gopher standout and newest member of the Minnesota Lynx.
“This is what I asked for. This is what I wanted my entire life is to be back playing in a Lynx jersey,” Banham said following practice in Bradenton, Fla. this week. “There’s always pressure, but I use it as motivation. I’m not at home, so it’s not the same in that I won’t perform in front of the fans and see the fans physically. There’s always some pressure, but I love it.”
In February, Minnesota acquired Banham in a sign-and-trade deal with the Connecticut Sun in exchange for a 2021 second-round draft pick. That move officially brought the guard back to the state where she grew up and played college basketball before entering the league as a pro in 2016.
The Minnesotan comes back to where she starred at Lakeville North High School and spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota while becoming the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer — among both men and women — with 3,093 career points.
“I’m loving it. I’m learning a bunch with a new team and a new system,” Banham said. “I’m just taking it all in. All of my teammates have been really cool and have been communicating a lot. I’m just absorbing it all and having fun.”
For Minnesota basketball fans, Banham’s story and her route to the Lynx reminds many of another player who is viewed as a basketball icon within the state: Lindsay Whalen, who is currently the head women’s basketball coach at her alma mater.
Banham and Whalen have nearly identical journeys and backgrounds. Both grew up in the state, went to play and excel at the University of Minnesota, broke into the WNBA after being drafted by Connecticut, before ultimately being traded to the Lynx.
Whalen’s career with the Lynx resulted in endless accolades, including four WNBA championships, which is the type of success Banham hopes she can also try and accomplish in Minnesota by the time she is done playing.
“(Whalen) has definitely been a person I’ve talked to a lot. I’ve been following in her footsteps pretty much every step of the way,” Banham said in an Instagram Live interview earlier this offseason. “Just coming to the Lynx, she told me that Cheryl (Reeve) is going to push me to be the best player I can be and she is going to challenge me every day. She said, ‘Are you ready?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.'”
Although Banham seems to be following closely in Whalen’s footsteps while now just beginning her latest journey with the Lynx, the guard is hoping to create her own level of success back with her home state team beginning in 2020.
“I wanted to be in Minnesota at some point in my career, but Connecticut was amazing for my first four seasons,” Banham said on Instagram Live.
“For most girls, they want to be back in their home town. You want to be around your fans that you played for and your family and continue to grow your game where you came from. I’ve grown up here, went to the University of Minnesota and I’m truly a Minnesota girl. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to come back here at any point in my career.”
Fighting For A Spot With The Lynx
Going into her first season back in Minnesota, Banham will certainly have an opportunity to make an impact on the Lynx right out of the gate.
With the 2020 WNBA season taking place at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. beginning July 25, Banham joins a team that will rely on somewhat of a platoon or guard-by-committee group in Minnesota’s rotation.
“I want to get out there and help my team in any way I can, whether that’s at (point guard) or (shooting guard),” Banham said. “Just being able to get minutes (in Minnesota) will be the biggest thing compared to the last few seasons (in Connecticut).”
In her first four seasons with the Sun, Banham struggled to get a large amount of playing time, averaging 11.4 minutes off the bench. Over those four years, she managed to average four points, one assist and one rebound in a total of 107 games.
One thing Banham has done well really throughout her entire basketball career has been her ability to open things up on offense and hit shots from all over the floor. She holds career shooting marks of 36.4 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from beyond the arc and 81.1 percent from the free throw line.
“Her ability to shoot the ball is something we valued,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said in why Minnesota wanted to acquire Banham. “We look forward to having her in a Lynx uniform this season and beyond.”
Banham will be thrown into a guard group alongside teammates Lexie Brown, Shenise Johnson and rookie Crystal Dangerfield. Veteran guard Odyssey Sims — who is currently on the inactive list to start the year — is expected to eventually join that group at some point during the season.
With Dangerfield being really the lone true point guard among that unit, we will likely see a few different combinations at the two guard spots early on in the year. That means Banham will get an opportunity to carve out a spot right away in Year 1.
“I can shoot really well and Rachel can shoot really well,” Brown said of potentially playing alongside Banham. “I think us on the floor together, we are going to be able to spread the floor and maybe make Sylvia Fowles’ life a little easier (in the post).”
For Banham, the 2020 season will be a memorable one both for the fact that she will finally be able to suit up for her home state team as well as being presented with an opportunity to take her career to the next level. But the 27-year-old Minnesota native, who celebrated a birthday on July 15, is motivated to take advantage of every minute.
“Your job is never safe here in the league. You have to compete for a spot,” Banham said. “I know coming into this team, I have the opportunity to play good minutes and possibly be a starter. But nothing changes for me. I’m working hard, I’m competing, I’m talking, I’m being the best teammate I can and will continue to do that every single practice.”