January 31, 2023
It’s the Napheesa Collier era in Minnesota now
'It’s a big responsibility that I’m trying to take as seriously as I can'
MINNEAPOLIS — Since the moment the final buzzer sounded through the Mohegan Sun Arena on a mid-August Sunday evening in 2022, one thing has been made crystal clear: the Minnesota Lynx are on a mission to reclaim their place as the gold standard in the WNBA.
“The expectations are high for the Minnesota Lynx,” Minnesota’s president of basketball operations and head coach Cheryl Reeve said back in November at a press conference announcing her return to the team. “We’ve been the gold standard [in] this league and we’re on a mission to get back to that.”
The final buzzer of that 90-83 loss at the hands of the Connecticut Sun marked a number of significant and difficult truths for the Lynx to grapple with. It marked the official end of the Sylvia Fowles era in the Twin Cities. It also marked the first time Reeve—the league’s all-time winningest coach in postseason play—didn’t get to coach the Lynx in the WNBA Playoffs since 2010, her first season as the team’s head coach.
Now, 168 days after Fowles suited up in Minnesota’s midnight navy and aurora green for the final time, the Lynx find themselves turning the page to a new era, with the most anticipated and arguably most important offseason in franchise history looming.
As the cloud of uncertainty and roller coaster of emotions that comes with free agency hang over the entire league for at least the next few weeks, the Lynx can find comfort in their own pillar of certainty standing tall in the North Star State: the return of two-time all-star Napheesa Collier.
Collier missed almost all of last season while pregnant with her daughter, Mila. The former No. 6 overall pick managed to get back on the court 10.5 weeks after giving birth to play four more games with Fowles. She enters this season in the unfamiliar but exciting territory of being the undisputed leader of a team with championship aspirations.
“It’s definitely big shoes to fill,” Collier said in a sit-down interview with The Next earlier this month. “It’s going to push me to be a better person, a better leader for the team. It is outside my comfort zone, being a really vocal leader, but it’s something that I want to have as part of my skill set. I see it as growth rather than changing your personality. I want to grow as a person. I want to grow as a leader so I’m excited to try to continue to do that.”
Those shoes don’t just refer to Fowles. It also refers to the now-official retirement of league and franchise icon Maya Moore, who hadn’t played since the 2018 season, and the strange reality of entering a season without a single member of the longtime championship core on the roster for the first time in over a decade.
“There is pressure, but it’s a good pressure,” Collier said. “No one from that championship team is here anymore, so you don’t have someone (on the court) who’s been through it. It’s almost like a new era. This is a whole new generation of people who are trying to achieve what they did.”
While it may not be on the floor, there is plenty of championship pedigree throughout the organization helping to relieve some of that pressure. Reeve, and her 281 regular season wins (good for No. 5 all time), is still in charge. 5X WNBA Champion and member of Lynx Mount Rushmore Rebekkah Brunson is back for her fourth season as an assistant coach. And newly promoted general manager Clare Duwelius has been with the club since 2014.
She may not be charged with bringing the Lynx back to the promised land all on her own, but Collier is the unquestionable face of a franchise turning the page.
“(I’m) aware that that’s my role now. (Cheryl’s) said multiple times she’s trying to build the team around me,” Collier said. “It’s a big responsibility that I’m trying to take as seriously as I can. Making sure that my body’s right and making sure that I’m going to come back and fulfill that role and be as prepared as I can for when the season starts.”
What the team will look like remains to be seen. The dominos of WNBA free agency are starting to fall. Candace Parker provided the first big splash of free agency, announcing her plans to sign with the Las Vegas Aces on her Instagram page on Saturday afternoon. She’ll be joined by Alysha Clark, according to our own Howard Megdal. The Lynx were in the mix for all-world talent Breanna Stewart, but she’s reportedly narrowed her choices down to Seattle and New York per Rachel Galligan of Just Women’s Sports. Minnesota has still been linked to big names such as Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot and Azurá Stevens.
Not only is playing with Collier a big part of Minnesota’s pitch to free agents, Collier herself is at the forefront of the team’s recruiting efforts. She accompanied Lynx brass on a recent trip to Istanbul to meet with players and has engaged in conversations with Reeve and company on the team’s free agency efforts and strategy.
“We’ve definitely been talking about free agency. I went on the trip with them to Istanbul for free agency recruitment. Just being more active in that for sure,” Collier said. “Now it’s part of my responsibility. I feel like it’s my team too and I want to be involved in the recruiting.”
How the roster takes shape around Minnesota’s brightest young star will come to light as the calendar turns to February. What can be said with certainty is the goal for Collier, Reeve, and the 2023 Lynx will is to play into late September and beyond. A goal starting with building around a fully healthy Collier and supporting her with not only a re-tooled roster, but also the luxury of the first full training camp since her rookie year.
“I’m so excited. I’m really excited to just know what our roster is going to be and then to get together so we can start building our chemistry and build our championship team that we hope to be this year,” Collier said. “There’s a lot of anticipation. I can’t wait to see what the team looks like and can’t wait to be with the team and see how we gel.”
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.