On May 6—opening night of the 2022 WNBA season—the Minnesota Lynx made a pair of hardship contract signings. One of these signings was of an international player many hadn’t heard of before.
Forward Nikolina Milić was a surprise addition to the Lynx to kick off the 2022 campaign, making her WNBA debut to begin the season against the Seattle Storm. After the game, in which Milić recorded seven points, six rebounds, one assist, and one steal in 12 minutes off the bench, Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve addressed some criticism regarding the decision to sign Milić.
“What did you think of Milić?” Reeve asked after the season opener. “She looked like a professional basketball player.”
Having been on a hardship contract since signing with Minnesota, Milić had her time with the Lynx come to a brief end on June 22 when she was released to make room for players returning from injury. Milić and the Lynx were determined to make things work for her to return, however, despite other WNBA teams expressing interest in the forward. A few days after releasing her, Minnesota signed Milić to a seven-day contract to bring her back.
Nearly two months into the regular season, Milić has largely put to rest any of the early-season questions about her signing. The international standout is proving she can play in the WNBA, and should be here to stay.
Journey to the WNBA
Milić, a native of Serbia, is a 28-year-old, 6’3” forward who has spent the entirety of her playing career overseas. Before signing with the Lynx, Milić played in the EuroLeague throughout her career, most recently for Hungarian club KSC Szekszárd last winter, where over 13 games she averaged 17.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 2.0 steals while shooting 57.1 percent from the field, according to the Lynx. She remained relatively consistent with these stats during the 2022 EuroLeague regular season, averaging 16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals over 10 contests.
“I’ve been playing basketball in Europe on a pretty high level,” Milić said in an exclusive interview with Winsidr. “I’ve mostly been playing in the EuroLeague, which is the best basketball in Europe.”
Milić also represented the Serbian national team at the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 in Serbia and Latvia, helping the Serbians take home a bronze medal while recording 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 12.5 minutes over six games. In addition, she appeared in both the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Serbia and the 2021 FIBA EuroBasket Qualifiers.
Having become a well-known name and talent overseas, Milić felt the one thing left for her to do in her playing career was to play in the WNBA. After exploring the idea for a few years to come to the United States, Milić is now living out her dream in Minnesota.
“This is the only thing that was missing in my career,” Milić said. “I started thinking about it to get the experience, and I got the opportunity to come here and to play in the league.”
A Dream Come True With the Lynx
For as long as she’s been playing basketball, Milić always had the goal of one day testing her skills in the WNBA. Milić felt as though she had accomplished enough overseas and was ready to join a new league where she wasn’t as well known.
A couple of years ago, the possibility of playing in the WNBA became more real when a few teams—notably the Dallas Wings, Atlanta Dream, and Lynx—started to show interest in Milić. Minnesota, though, was the team most consistent in their pursuit of acquiring Milić. Conversations between the organization and Milić’s agency, Cound Group Global (which represents nearly 20 percent of the WNBA), began a little over two years ago during the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, while Reeve was with Team USA. That dialogue has continued ever since, and the discussions increased before the start of the 2022 regular season.
“[Milić] was a solid player when I first got to know her, and Cheryl was the only one that really bit onto that,” said Milić’s agent, Mike Cound, who was introduced to Milić a few years ago through a connection with his Spanish partner, Jorgé Mendez, who is Milić’s European agent. “Most teams get a little gun-shy of European players because of their time commitments during the summers in Europe. … There are a lot of [European players] out there, and sometimes they are better than who you are going to get in the draft.
“[Milić] proved that she can be a star. A lot of WNBA people don’t see the quality in a player. They only see the stars. Cheryl went deeper than that.”
When Reeve and the Lynx reached out to Cound right before the regular season to offer Milić a hardship contract, Milić wasn’t surprised by the news and didn’t have to think long about making her WNBA dream a reality. Luckily, Milić and her agency were prepared, arranging her work visa in advance so she could join a team as soon as one came calling.
“I was excited. This was the only thing missing in my career. I can say it’s really a dream come true,” Milić told Winsidr. “When I started playing basketball, I was always ambitious and had big goals in my career. I always wanted to play basketball at the highest level there is, and this is the highest possible that I could go. I can say I accomplished my goals from the beginning.
“I didn’t have to think too much about it. Some things are different than in Europe, but I’ve started to adapt to it fast. I’m very happy to be here and grateful for the opportunity to be part of this team. I’m just taking it day by day and trying to do my best.”
Stepping Up in Minnesota
Now, Milić is making a name for herself on the WNBA stage. And she’s not only helping her new team during her first season in the league, but she’s also stepping up and making the most of every opportunity.
In the first 10 games of her WNBA career, Milić primarily saw time as a role player off the bench, averaging 5.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 0.8 assists in 11.3 minutes per game. But after becoming more comfortable, Milić’s play has turned up a notch.
“I think all beginnings are the hardest,” Milić said. “When I first got here, I had to adapt to a new environment, a new system, and I had to learn more about the different rules here than in Europe. It was my adapting period. You have to prove yourself and earn your minutes, so the beginning for me was just me proving what I can do.
“Game by game, Coach is trusting me more, and I’m getting more minutes. Now things are getting better, and I just want to make sure I’m ready every time [Reeve] calls my name and I’m on the court. Whether that’s five minutes or 25, I’m just doing my best and enjoying playing basketball.”
As soon as the calendar flipped to June, Milić’s play with the Lynx heated up. With Minnesota continuing to deal with a slow start, along with endless injuries and players coming and going from the rotation, Milić has been relied upon to step up in her rookie showcase.
And it would be an understatement to say she has risen to the occasion.
“I haven’t been surprised at all. She has a mature game, and she’s tough,” Cound said to Winsidr, remarking on Milić and her play as of late. “With European players, sometimes they are not ready for that change of style. When she gets minutes, she’s one of the most efficient players on the [Lynx]. … She’s starting to figure it out. She’s extra tough, beyond the normal player.”
During an eight-game stretch up to June 21, Milić saw the quality of her play increase, and her playing time has increased along with it. Over that span, she averaged 10.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 19.9 minutes per game. Milić saw extended time on the floor due to Sylvia Fowles being out with a knee injury, and Milić showed she deserves this enhanced role. She even received her first career start, in the Lynx’s loss to Seattle on June 14 in Minnesota.
“Coach came up to me and said I was going to start the game [on June 14]. … I saw that she actually trusts me. I was excited and made sure that I was ready and didn’t want to disappoint her,” Milić said. “I have the same mentality no matter if I start the game, if I start off the bench. You always want to do your best and use every single minute the best possible way.”
Entering Minnesota’s game against the Dallas Wings on June 28, Milić has appeared in 18 games this season. In those contests, Milić has averaged 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 13.8 minutes, while shooting 47.9 percent from the field.
“I think I’m a good fit [with Minnesota and in the WNBA]. In general, the WNBA is fast [paced]basketball, and I’m somebody who likes pushing the pace and running the fast break,” she said. “I think I’m good at doing that, and I think this style of basketball fits me.”
a career-high performance last night 🔥 pic.twitter.com/TbPhphi46z
— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) June 13, 2022
Milić’s journey from Europe to the WNBA has been a career-long dream come true. For now, the international talent is hoping to help her new team dig themselves out of an early-season hole that has left them at the bottom of the standings. As far as her future in the league and with the Lynx goes, Milić will continue to take that one day at a time and see where things go from here. But if her recent level of play continues, Milić will be here to stay in the WNBA.
“Everybody knows we didn’t start the season as we had hoped. I think the future will be better for us and we are improving every day,” Milić said. “I’m just hoping we are going to turn this around and things start going better for us. For me, I don’t think too much into the future. I’m going day by day and focusing on what’s now. What the future holds, who knows. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow or in a year or two, so I’m just going slowly.”
Statistics in this story courtesy of WNBA.com, the Minnesota Lynx, and FIBA Basketball.