May 3, 2024 

2024 WNBA season preview: Minnesota Lynx

Expectations trend up after Minnesota's return to the playoffs in 2023

MINNEAPOLIS — About a year ago, in the exact same room, Minnesota Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve opened media day with an outlook that differed from the previous dozen or so seasons of Lynx basketball. For the first time in Reeve’s tenure at the helm, the Lynx were entering a season without a single member of its 2010s dynasty on the roster.

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For the first time since Reeve’s second season as head coach, the team was entering a new year with the sting of missing out on the playoffs the year before. Napheesa Collier was returning after missing nearly all of the 2022 season due to giving birth to her daughter. Uncertainty loomed over Minnesota Lynx basketball in a way it hadn’t since before Reeve’s arrival.

Phrases like ‘new era’ and ‘long view,’ were used throughout the offseason. The external expectations of the team fell well below the standard of Lynx culture, an admission that the team was turning a significant page. But the expectation of returning to the WNBA’s gold standard was the only intention.

A year ago at this time, the 2023 Lynx were a ball of clay. Fast-forward to training camp 2024 and the foundation of what the team can be has taken shape.

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“The expectation is obviously to build on last season, where a lot of people were just sort of unsure what to expect from the Minnesota Lynx,” Reeve said. “Frankly, the expectations weren’t high for most people externally. I think that what we learned about last season through our evolution, we had to go through those challenging times to get to the place that we got to. That’s generally how life works.”

Minnesota’s roller coaster 2023 came to an end with a competitive, but ultimately ill-fated 2–1 series loss to the Connecticut Sun. A finish many external pundits couldn’t have predicted during the team’s 0–6 start, but also a finish that fell short of the championship standard the team stands on. 

“We figured things out and we learned our identity,” Reeve said. “We learned that we’ve got a foundation of an MVP candidate in Napheesa Collier. Her chemistry and connection with Kayla McBride was something that really showed itself.”

Building on last season’s return to the postseason and advancing deeper in the playoffs is the primary goal in Minnesota for 2024. Getting there will require the Lynx’s returning core players to take the necessary next steps to continue their ascension, and mesh well with the caravan of talented acquisitions the Lynx made in the offseason.

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“For Phee, the next step is to be the MVP,” Reeve said. “For Dorka [Juhász] and Diamond [Miller], the next step is to be better than last year in terms of those rookie moments. They had great experience, great experience, then you blend that with these vets that have competed at a high level. Natisha Hiedeman and Courtney Williams have been part of great playoff series. 

“That’s the feel that we have. We know that when we get the preseason rankings, when the experts share what they think of us, we’re pretty sure that we’re not going to blow anybody away, but that’s kind of been our life for a while now and we’re going to continue to surprise people.”

The Captains

MN Lynx vs Phoenix Mercury, Kayla McBride & Napheesa Collier postgame final 2023 regular season home game, on September 3rd, 2023 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota (Photo Credit: John McClellan/The Next)

Not only did Collier return to form in 2023, she climbed to new heights and inserted herself into the league MVP conversation. Collier played as the team’s lone captain in 2023, but this year she’ll be joined by running mate Kayla McBride, who signed a two-year extension by season’s end. Both players enjoyed their most productive seasons as members of the Minnesota Lynx and rode that momentum through the winter, winning a EuroLeague Women championship together as teammates on the Turkish club Fenerbahçe.  

“It was great for me,” Collier said of her time with Fenerbahçe this winter. “[McBride] has been on that team for like five years. For me I think it was more the comfort of having people I knew on the team, especially in the beginning. To continue to build the chemistry that we have on the court, working on things that Cheryl is always trying to get us to get better at. To build that in the offseason I think is really valuable.” 

Collier received her first ever First-Team All-WNBA selection and finished fourth in MVP voting last season. This year, she’ll have the benefit of heading into the season at full strength and with wind in her sails from a successful campaign with Fenerbahçe. 

“Last year before the season I was really just focused on getting my body right and being able to play at a high level during the season,” Collier said. “This offseason, I was able to actually work on things basketball-wise, get better, play overseas, which was great. I was playing with [McBride] and [Nikolina Milić] so having some Lynx on the team was awesome.” 

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McBride had her highest scoring season with the Minnesota Lynx in 2023, which earned her a multi-year extension by the end of the season. The Fenerbahçe mainstay returned to the Turkish club in the winter where she helped lead the team to a EuroLeague Women Championship and also took home EuroLeague Women Final 4 MVP honors. It’s been a good year of basketball for the player affectionately known as ‘McBuckets,’ who can now add the title of ‘team captain’ to her list of accolades. 

“It means a lot. Especially coming from Cheryl, to earn the representation of a captain for this organization is huge,” McBride said. “It just shows the growth. Obviously I’ve had some ups and downs, but I think last year I really took a leap and I think that coach and the staff saw that. I’m the oldest player on the team now which is kind of hard to believe since I’m only 31 years old. I’m really proud to wear ‘Minnesota Lynx’ across my chest and be one of the leaders that everybody can depend on.”

Even with impressive additions that should have a positive influence both offensively and defensively, the Lynx are a team that will stand on the shoulders of Collier and McBride and will go as far as their captains can take them. If Collier can insert herself even further into the MVP conversation, it could make for a very successful summer in Minnesota. 

“With all MVPs, points are a given, you know you’re going to get your points in that group,” Collier said. “But those are things like rebounding, assists, those other categories, I think stepping it up for me in those other [categories] is going to be really important. All of the players [in the conversation] are really good, so they’re all going to get their numbers. It’s those other categories that push you over the top. 

The Sophomores

Minnesota undoubtedly came away with two of the crown jewels of the 2023 WNBA Draft, Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász. The now second-year players had ups and downs synonymous with any rookie season, but both provided plenty of reasons for Lynx fans to believe they’ll factor into the teams long-term plans.

Dorka Juhász and Diamond Miller speak to the media after their first preseason game at Target Center in Minneapolis during their rookie season in 2023 (Photo Credit: John McClellan/The Next)

Miller finished second among all rookies in scoring (387, 12.1 points per game) to Rookie of the Year Award winner Aliyah Boston, and Juhász finished second to Boston in both rebounds (246, 6.5 rebounds per game) and blocked shots (23, 0.6 blocks per game).

Juhász is currently enjoying a playoff run with Italian club Famila Schio and will return to the Minnesota Lynx as soon as her overseas season concludes. Miller, who also planned to play overseas this offseason, sustained an injury to her meniscus that required surgery and had to forego those plans, but has been able to fully participate in Lynx training camp. 

“I’m able to play full competitive basketball right now, which is a blessing,” Miller said. “I’m still working my way back, but it’s definitely better than [it was] in the offseason.” 

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A benefit of not playing overseas for Miller is that she has been able to get in the facility early and log plenty of on-court time with some of Minnesota’s prized additions, veterans Natisha Hiedeman and Courtney Williams, and first-round draft pick Alissa Pili

“It’s really exciting to play with them,” Miller said. “I did get that time [with them] so that just continues to build chemistry and trust and that’s something you need to be a really elite team. You need to have chemistry, trust, and obviously get buckets. I think that’s something that we needed for this offseason and I think training camp is also helping to continue to grow that chemistry.”

Miller had her rookie season interrupted by an ankle injury just five games into the schedule, but played some exceptional basketball upon her return and immediately helped spark a five-game winning streak that got the Lynx back to 0.500. 

“Her movements are to where she’s supposed to be and they’re quicker because she’s already done it,” Reeve said of Miller after day two of training camp. “Anytime you do something for a second time, you have more experience with it, it’s a little more natural for you. I’ve seen that and I’ve also seen her communicating to the players around her who are new.” 

If Minnesota can get a significant step forward in production from Miller and/or Juhász in 2024, it will go a long way in turning a playoff appearance into a deep playoff run.

The New and Returning Supporting Cast 

Reeve has not been shy about her desire for the Minnesota Lynx to shoot more threes in 2024. The team averaged 20.8 three-point attempts per game in 2023, which ranked 7th in the league and converted 6.8 threes per game (32.5%), which ranked 11th in the league.

“I want to be in the top four [in attempts],” Reeve said on Media Day. 

The Lynx made a couple of significant offseason moves that may well lead to more three-point splashes for the team in 2024. First, they inked a pair of former Chicago Sky teammates in Alanna Smith and Courtney Williams to multi-year deals. The pair of players will add versatility, defensive ability, shooting, and plenty of energy to their respective positions. 

“I’m excited to [have] two players who I think are coming off their best seasons as pros,” Reeve said at the introductory press conference for Smith and Williams. “Alanna is somebody that we got to know during the collegiate scouting process and we were close to being aligned at that time. Courtney is a player that we’ve played against for years, probably the best experience I had with Courtney was at the USA Basketball training camp here in Minneapolis. We got to know each other a bit and what each other is about. Then watching Courtney for Chicago be one of the best point guards in the league, that was exciting for us as that was one of the positions we were targeting.”

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Smith in particular will add another layer of rim protection for a team that sorely needs it. Minnesota finished dead last in blocked shots per game in 2023 at 2.6. Smith was one of 10 players in the league last year to eclipse the 50-block mark, averaging a career-high 1.3 per game. Numbers that should be music to the ears of an organization that has prided itself on spectacular play in the post. 

“Cheryl’s reputation precedes her,” Smith said on Media Day. “She has developed players to be the best that they can be. You can see it with the players she’s had over the years and even now with Napheesa and the player she is and is becoming. I think what Cheryl is really good at is helping people become the player that they can be, which is something that she communicated to me in the lead up to this and I think that’s really exciting for me.”

Minnesota also acquired Natisha Hiedeman from Connecticut in exchange for Tiffany Mitchell and a second-round pick to round out the team’s backcourt. Hiedeman, who was originally drafted by the Lynx in 2019 before she was traded to Connecticut in a draft night trade, started every single game for last year’s Sun team that eliminated Minnesota from the playoffs and eventually fell to the high-powered Liberty in the semifinals. Hiedeman is another player who can play both guard positions and is a threat from beyond the arc as a 39.2% 3-point shooter. 

The Minnesota Lynx also further bolstered their 3-point-shooting with the selection of Alissa Pili from the University of Utah with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. No matter how much Pili stands to play as a rookie in 2024, she’s the type of scorer that instantly upgrades any offense. 

Minnesota Lynx 2024 WNBA first-round draft pick Alissa Pili and Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve speak to the media at A Bar of Their Own in Minneapolis on April 22 (Photo Credit: John McClellan/The Next)

“Alissa is an exceptional scorer,” Reeve said on Draft Night. “I think that was something that was clear throughout the season for much of, at least half the season. Her true shooting percentage was just through the roof. And even her effective field goal percentage, so factoring in twos and threes, true shooting percentage and her ability to get to the free throw line. I think most of the talent evaluators found her to be one of the top offensive players in the draft.”

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Also back in the fold with a fresh two-year deal to provide some offensive and defensive firepower in 2024 is five-year veteran and fan-favorite Bridget Carleton. The Canadian international had a successful offseason campaign in Hungary filling up the stat sheet for Uni Gyor, serendipitously filling in for the injured Diamond Miller, who was supposed to play for the Hungarian club before her meniscus injury (the two players have the same representation). Carleton averaged 14.7 points per game in Hungary and will look to keep the momentum going into the new season as one of the longest tenured Lynx on the roster.

Minnesota is also awaiting the return of Italian sharpshooting dynamo Cecilia Zandalasini, who was part of the team’s last championship in 2017 and last played in the WNBA in 2018. Like Juhász, Zandalasini is also currently tied up in the Italian postseason and not beholden to the WNBA’s prioritization rule. She’ll provide experience and give Reeve another sniper in the cupboard whenever she arrives. 

The Expectation

By the time the Minnesota Lynx found their identity in 2023, they had a mountain to climb in the standings. This year’s outfit looks to be much further along at this point than they were last year and should be able to give themselves, at the very least, more margin for error than they were afforded with last season’s 0–6 start. 

“We do have high expectations,” Reeve said. “We feel like the additions that we made in free agency, we made a trade, the draft, we feel a little deeper. We have those four (Collier, McBride, Miller, Juhász)  that I mentioned from last season now, where we can blend in with some players that can do some things that we felt like we couldn’t do last year. 

“So you should expect us to be better defensively. You should expect us to be better at three point shooting. You should expect us to be able to play with better pace. You should expect Diamond Miller to evolve you know despite her not being able to play this offseason, you should expect Dorka [to evolve]. So all of those things. It’s the next step.”

Written by Terry Horstman

Terry Horstman is a Minneapolis-based writer and covers the Minnesota Lynx beat for The Next. He previously wrote about the Minnesota Timberwolves for A Wolf Among Wolves, and his other basketball writing has been published by Flagrant Magazine, HeadFake Hoops, Taco Bell Quarterly, and others. He's the creative nonfiction editor for the sports-themed literary magazine, the Under Review.

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