June 20, 2022
Nikolina Milić, a silver lining of Minnesota’s 2022 season
Role to be determined, but Milić should be here to stay
I’ll cut to the chase: Nikolina (known to all as Nina) Milić is a bonafide WNBA player. In a season in which so much has gone wrong for the Minnesota Lynx, head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve found a genuine asset in Milić, a 6’3 big from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The acquisition of Milić on a hardship deal earlier in the season raised a few eyebrows, if only because many people stateside had never heard of her prior. However, Reeve made it clear that she had had her eyes on Milić for many years after coaching against her during international Olympic play.
“Make sure you print that,” Reeve joked with me regarding Milić’s impressive acumen and skills after she made her debut. (Mission accomplished.) Milić has played well enough to warrant a longer stay in the WNBA.
Where Milić excels is in two areas where the Lynx have struggled for consistency this season: in the post and in transition. Entering play on Sunday, Milić ranks in the 97th percentile in post-up efficiency (1.455 points per position) and in the 96th in transition (1.529 ppp), according to Synergy. Granted, some of Milić’s success is driven by the small-sample-sized nature of her play thus far — she’s only be involved in 17 possessions in transition and 11 in the post as classified by Synergy — but the eye test supports the data.
Milić has a good feel around the rim and tends to take a physical approach to getting buckets. She has a deft touch and good footwork, which allows her to get good looks even when defended by some of the best in the league.
In the above clip, Milić grabs the offensive rebound in a position that is more advantageous for Breanna Stewart than herself. Stewart immediately applies pressure by bodying her up, but Milić crab-dribbles to the paint until she sees an opportunity to make her move. She’s strong enough to not lose her balance when Stewart attempts to stop her momentum by sticking her chest into her and proceeds to use her right elbow and left hand to create just enough separation to get the shot off.
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Milić is by no means a perfect player. She tends to turn the ball over and her quickness and instincts on the defensive end leave something to be desired. But those weaknesses should be expected of a rookie, even one who is 28 years old with a significant amount of experience overseas.
While she would not start on teams with deeper frontcourts, she is the type of player who helps raise the ceiling of good teams. In many respects, she’s the big equivalent of teammate Bridget Carleton, the Lynx’s well-rounded wing. Neither player is likely to elevate a bad team to the realm of the passable—see Lynx, 2022 for evidence—but each would be a valuable commodity on a playoff-caliber team in need of reliably useful players off the bench.
“She was impacting the game. Defensively. Offensively. Rebounding,” Lynx assistant Katie Smith said of Milić following the team’s 84-80 loss to the Indiana Fever; Milić was awarded the start coming out of halftime and finished with a career-high 23 points and six rebounds. “[She was] just really impacting and really giving us something we thought we needed to begin the third quarter.”
“She’s somebody that as she’s got more time and got more used to the WNBA—she’s learning this team and what we like to do. So I would venture to say she would tell you she’s more comfortable,” Reeve said of Milić’s play as of late following their loss on Sunday to the Las Vegas Aces. “Without [Sylvia Fowles], Nina gives us an interior presence. We felt like we need a balance when [Damiris Dantas] returned. It was Didi being able to space the floor and Nina being able to be a good screen-and-roll presence down there and I think she’s done that pretty well last couple games.”
Milić has earned the opportunity to stay in the WNBA as long as she would like, whether with Minnesota or another team once Fowles and Natalie Achonwa return from injury. Unfortunately, the Lynx will have no choice but to release Milić once Fowles and Achonwa return from their respective leg injuries as she is on a hardship deal. Due to additional money spent on hardship contracts, Minnesota would need more cap room than simply waiving one of their unprotected contracts would allow, a league source tells The Next.*
Regardless of how or where the season ends for Milić, she has proven she belongs which is all anyone could have asked of her after making the trek from overseas.
(An earlier version of this story said Minnesota could keep Milić by simply waiving one of its non-guaranteed players.)