2022 was an important year for the Minnesota Lynx. It was a season we might look back upon a few years down the road as a key one for shaping the team we see at that time and the success that might follow.
Yes, that 2022 season ended in the disappointment of not reaching the postseason for the first time in over a decade. Yes, it marked the final season of the legendary career of Sylvia Fowles, who has been one of Minnesota’s biggest contributors on the court and as a leader in the locker room. Yes, it resulted in the Lynx being in the draft lottery and selecting their highest pick since 2011, which was when they selected Maya Moore first overall.
With all that in mind, how could the 2022 season be an important and positive one for the Lynx?
Those shortcomings, the now absence of a future Hall of Fame leader, and the injection of young rookies have allowed Minnesota to take inventory and realize what—and who—the organization wants to prioritize moving forward.
Throughout the offseason and leading up to the 2023 campaign, that answer has been clear: The priority and centerpiece for the Lynx has been and will continue to be Napheesa Collier.
“Phee is the epitome of what we want to see. A selfless person, emotionally mature, and handles ups and downs in a way that’s just really impressive,” Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re giving her a team that she wants to play with and there’s a clear direction with our team and who we’re putting around her. That’s important to us.”
Becoming a Leader
Leadership has been under development for Collier since she broke into the WNBA in 2019. But she hasn’t necessarily had to step up as one of the main voices and leaders on the team while being surrounded by other veterans on the Lynx roster, notably Fowles, who have assumed that role.
Now with Fowles gone, Collier is the new leader of this team, a role she welcomes as she enters her fifth season in the league.
“It’s a good pressure. It’s like an honor. Obviously, this is a dynasty organization, so to have that be on my shoulders now, I take that very seriously,” Collier said. “I want to appreciate the people who came before me and make sure I’m leading the team in the right direction.”
Reeve believes Collier has already showcased the ability to be a leader, but she will have to take that to the next level this season. One sign of Reeve’s confidence in Collier’s leadership is the fact that the forward is the lone captain on the team this year, something that hasn’t occurred since Reeve arrived in Minnesota.
“That’s what it calls for with this team. It doesn’t mean you won’t have veterans that will lead as well, but it’s her that has the space—at any time—to say what she needs to say,” Reeve said. “She’s an extension of the coaching staff. That comes naturally for her, so I don’t see that being a problem. Her work ethic and everything that [she]stands for, that’s what you hope you have in your captain. That’s Phee.
“Basketball wise, that’s not where the pressure is. I think whatever perceived pressure for her is that you can’t have a bad day as a leader,” Reeve continued. “You have to show up every day as a leader. You can’t be like ‘oh, I don’t really feel like it today.’ No. So she’s part of the leadership team. She is the leader. She is the lone captain for this team.”
Building a Team Around Collier
From the time Fowles hung up her Lynx uniform in 2022, the Lynx have been dedicated to surrounding Collier with talent to bring out the best in her this year and beyond.
The Lynx tried to swing big in free agency, going after big-name players like Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot, Azurá Stevens, and others. That obviously didn’t work out in Minnesota’s favor, so the organization shifted to the draft in hopes of finding players to match Collier’s skill set.
In the draft, the Lynx came away with a handful of prospects, notably Diamond Miller with the second overall pick and Dorka Juhász at 16th overall. Minnesota also picked Maïa Hirsch 12th overall, but she won’t play in the WNBA in 2023.
Whether it’s Miller’s aggressive style of play and interest in playing in transition, Juhász’ ability to stretch the floor and be a shooting threat along with her rebounding and shot-blocking prowess, or Hirsch’s potential to play anywhere on the floor, all of those selections had Collier and her strengths in mind.
“Without Syl here, it opens up the paint a little more, so we do a lot of driving, a lot of attacking, a lot of one-on-one. [We’re] just taking advantage of the athleticism and the size that we have now,” Collier said during training camp. “The team that we have and the skill set that we have is great for the kind of offense we’re trying to run.
“This is an offense we haven’t necessarily run since I’ve been here yet. Being able to attack, attack, attack will be really fun, and I think we’re going to have a great season and a lot of success doing that.”
Getting Back to the “Old Phee”
Over the first three years of her career, Collier established herself as one of the best players in the league in short time, further proving her drop to sixth overall in the 2019 WNBA draft was a mistake—but one Minnesota is glad happened.
Last year, Collier missed all but four games of the regular season after giving birth to her daughter, Mila, in March of 2022. She made her return by the end of the season in order to play with Fowles again before her retirement.
Collier did manage to average 7.3 points per game (PPG), 3.0 rebounds per game (RPG), and 1.0 assist per game (APG) in 22.8 minutes per game (MPG) in those final four games, but the All-Star forward admitted she maybe tried to rush back earlier than she should have.
After a full offseason to train, recover, and get back to full strength, Collier feels as though we will now see the “Old Phee” that we last saw take the court in 2021.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to feel like my own self again,” Collier said.
Reeve said she has noticed an extra sense of excitement and anxiousness from Collier during training camp to get the season going, a welcome sign for a team that missed their star forward last year.
“She is a matchup nightmare. … Phee is so active at both ends. The stuff that she can do offensively you can’t teach,” Reeve said. “Her instincts and her movement. She’s shooting the heck out of the three ball, which was a big thing. So I’m really pleased that’s happened. That was a mission that we had for her, and it actually happened. It doesn’t always happen. And then defensively, you know her length and her instincts for movement and her rebounding.
“Yeah, we just missed Phee. Obviously, the way she does things, the way she carries herself, we’ve missed all that.”
There is a new wave of youth being injected into a rebuilding Lynx team in 2023, but there still are veteran players who will step up on the court and in the locker room. And at the center of all the ups and downs, the organizational decisions, and the leadership of this team will be the 26-year-old Collier. With all the core players from the Lynx dynasty era now officially retired, Collier will be the protagonist of this new chapter of Lynx basketball as they aim to one day replicate the many successes the organization has already seen.