July 24, 2023
Napheesa Collier’s star keeps rising higher and higher
Napheesa Collier is enjoying a special kind of comeback campaign in 2023
It’s been a good month to be Napheesa Collier. Minnesota’s All-Star captain earned WNBA Western Conference Player of the Week honors to kick off the month of July and announced the creation of Unrivaled, a new offseason 3v3 league she co-founded with fellow UConn legend Breanna Stewart.
Coming off a mostly lost season in 2022 due to giving birth to her first child, Mila, many wondered how long it would take Collier to return to the form that made her a second-time WNBA All-Star in 2021.
“I think the evolution of Phee to clearly be an All-Star at this point, for [her] to be in that conversation with — I mean look at the [All-Star] players that are in the frontcourt; that Phee is right there, that’s great news for our franchise,” Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve said after her squad’s 104-93 win against Seattle on June 27.
“I’ve said this before, but I worked really hard in the offseason to come back and be better than when I left the game in 2021,” Collier said after that same win.
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Collier hasn’t merely returned to her pre-2022 level, she’s flown high above it. Entering July 23, Collier led the league in total points (498), stood at fourth overall in points per game (21.7), is eighth in total rebounds (179) and 10th in rebounds per game (7.8). Most importantly, she has Minnesota playing playoff basketball.
“I’m just so proud of her because it’s not easy coming back after having [a child],” Lynx teammate Kayla McBride said. “And doing all these things and having to put yourself in the offseason…I think that her evolution and just what she’s been able to do from the beginning of the season has been amazing. I’ve been happy to be out there with her, pushing her, and doing everything I can to help make it easier for her…her game has been amazing to watch and amazing to be a part of.”
The language in WNBA circles around Collier and the Lynx during training camp featured words like ‘rebuilding,’ and ‘patience.’ The outside world didn’t place a ton of pressure on the Lynx to win or for Collier to return to form too quickly. Internally, however, Reeve appointed a lone captain for the first time in her coaching tenure in Minnesota, charging Collier with the responsibility to protect the culture the Lynx stand on. An appointment that does not come without the privilege of pressure.
“It does put pressure, but I feel like it’s good pressure,” Collier said on day one of training camp. “It’s like an honor. You know, obviously this is a dynasty organization. To have that be on my shoulders now, I take it really seriously. I definitely want to appreciate the people that came before me and make sure that I’m leading the team in the right direction.”
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After the much-maligned 0-6 start, the young Lynx have played winning basketball and Collier has planted her flag in the ground as one of the best players in the league.
Coming into the season, Collier had yet to eclipse the 30-point mark in a single game in her career. She’s done it five times in 2023 and has 17 more chances remaining on the season to add to that total. All five have come after the calendar turned over to June. She’s shooting more threes than ever before and hitting threes at her highest clip since the Wubble in 2020. And, not to be overlooked, the number Reeve might be the most pleased with is Collier rebounding the ball at a higher rate than in either of her previous two All-Star campaigns.
“That’s the goal every offseason, to work on what your weaknesses are,” Collier said after a home loss to the Fever on June 9. “I feel like I did that this offseason and hopefully it’s showing in games. Obviously there’s always room to get better. There’s things I want to get better at, but I’m proud of how hard my comeback was. Because it wasn’t easy. So I’m proud of myself for doing that and [I’m] just going to continue to grind.”
More so than scoring at the highest rate of her career, Collier has etched her name onto some of the more prestigious lists in the Minnesota Lynx history books. Just over 100 games (112 at the time of this writing) into her Lynx career, she’s worked her way into the top 10 of all major statistical totals. During a season in which the Lynx have celebrated the career and jersey retirement of Sylvia Fowles, and the franchise’s All-25 Team (which included Collier and McBride), Collier taking her place among the franchise’s biggest names before even turning 27 years old is no small achievement.
“Speaking of Maya [Moore] and [Sylvia Fowles], Phee joined them as just three players in our franchise’s history to get 25 points, 10 rebounds and more than three steals,” Reeve said after a 67-61 win against the Sparks in Los Angeles on June 20. “It’s happened 11 times (total) by those three players, so she joins Maya and Syl in that elite company. As we saw through her first 100 games, if you look at the statistics, she’s top five in a long list of some really good players. So for her first 100 games and where she’s at, we’re really pleased.”
“I’m definitely really honored to be part of that,” Collier said after the All-25 Team celebration on June 9. “With all these people here especially, you can just see all the history that has come through this organization, and see the greatness that has come before us, so to be mentioned with those names is really awesome.”
It’s been a good season indeed to be Napheesa Collier. And it’s a good time to have Napheesa Collier as the face of your franchise. How far can she carry Minnesota this year? Next year? Time will tell, but as for this preseason’s burning question of if Collier could return to the player she was? The answer is a pretty clear no. She’s better than she’s ever been and getting better still.
Collier placed the pressure of Minnesota’s new era on her own shoulders. The fit, thus far, has been just right.
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.