The 2021 WNBA season is right around the corner, with opening night on May 14 featuring four games, headlined by a showdown of longtime West powerhouses between the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury. For the Lynx, it will be an opportunity to get all their new acquisitions on the floor together and test themselves against a strong opponent, as Cheryl Reeve was very active this offseason in upgrading the roster coming off of a surprising semifinals run in the Wubble.
Among the top returners for the Lynx is Napheesa Collier, the 2019 Rookie of the Year and a second-team All-WNBA performer last year. Entering her third season, Collier is looking forward to building on last year’s success and getting a chance to share the floor with some of her new star teammates. Before the season starts, though, Collier is partnering with the Jr. NBA, along with Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies, to co-chair the Jr. NBA Court of Leaders, a new program that will pair up-and-coming young basketball players with mentors from the NBA and WNBA. The goal is to provide them with resources to continue growing not just as players, but off the court as future leaders in the community.
Collier spoke with Dime earlier this week about the upcoming season, the Lynx’s offseason, why she was excited for this partnership with the Jr. NBA, the vets that have helped her along the way and more.
We’re coming up on the WNBA season here soon. What has been your focus this offseason as you come off a couple really good seasons to start your career?
I’m playing in France right now, so I felt like last year because of COVID, you know, I couldn’t play [overseas] and I felt kind of rusty coming back into the season. So I was really excited to be able to play this year, try to work on things that I think I need to get better at like three point shooting and things like that. So just working on that and I’m super excited to see and meet all of the new people on our team. I think we’re looking really good so I’m excited.
Yeah I was gonna ask your thoughts on how the Lynx have handled the offseason, because obviously Cheryl made a bunch of big moves in free agency with Ariel [Powers] and, oh my goodness I’m spacing on the other two…
Natalie Achonwa and Kayla McBride.
Yes! Then with Rennia [Davis] in the Draft, it looks like another steal that she got with a later pick in the first round. What do you think of how this team has come together when some folks thought maybe it would go into a rebuild it looks like a reload?
Yeah, Cheryl is great at her job. She’s a great recruiter. There’s a reason she’s a great coach to play with and people want to play hard for her. So it’s not hard for her to bring people in, I don’t think, but she did a great job. And like you said, we have some great people coming to our team, some great pieces, key players, so I really cannot wait for the season because like you said, we kind of went from zero to 100. It’s awesome, so I’m excited.
Last year, getting that experience and making that run to the semis, what were the things that you felt that y’all as a team learned and can really build off of for this next season as you add these pieces?
I think we went a lot farther than people thought we would. And I think a lot of that is attributed to our team chemistry. We all got along so well and the personalities that we have are awesome on the team. So really trying to continue that. We have a lot of new people, so bringing them into our culture showing them, you know, how we do things in Minnesota and bringing them into the fold and building upon that team chemistry I think is going to be really crucial.
For you personally, from where you came in winning Rookie of the Year to now — you mentioned looking to get better at the three point shooting — but where do you think you’ve evolved in your game most as you come into year three in the WNBA?
I think the biggest aspect is mental, just like with anything experience is so important. And in this way you have people like Sue [Bird] and Diana [Taurasi], they’re obviously great players, but they’re so smart in the way that they play and it’s why they’ve been able to play for so long at a high level. So just more experience, and this’ll be my second year being a captain. So, you know, trying to come into that a little bit more and come out of my shell. But yeah, I would say experience for the number one thing.
Who are the vets both with the Lynx or playing overseas that you’ve been able to to lean on and learn from and gain some of that experience, especially learning to be a leader as you said being a captain again?
Mama Syl [Sylvia Fowles], of course. She’s the best vet. And I had Seimone Augustus my rookie year, love her, she’s awesome. So I really felt like I had two great vets my rookie year and obviously Syl is still there. I feel like I learn from her every day, the presence that she brings on and off the court is amazing and she’s a legend, obviously. So I really feel like I could talk to her about anything and she brought me under her wing when I first got there and I try to model my captain behavior after her.
You’re working with the Jr. NBA on the Court of Leaders. What drew you to this and what do you hope your impact can be on these young kids as you get to work with them?
I think the premise of it is awesome bringing young players from around the country together, and helping them build their leadership skills and developing them. I think that premise is awesome. I would have loved to have something like that when I was their age, so to be a part of it in any way I just thought it was such a great opportunity. So, you know the best I’m trying to do is listen to them — they’re so smart, and things that they talk about like with COVID and politically what’s going on, they’re so mature in the way that they speak. So it’s just really, it’s awesome for me to be able to be a part of it, and to listen to them.
Obviously the WNBA has always been a big voice for social change and social justice and we’re continuing to see that. What does it mean for you to be able to impart that on this next generation and continue to empower these young women as they come in to continue pushing forward and continue pushing for this change, as these fights continue?
Yeah, I think that’s so important. Again, it’s something that I wasn’t doing when I was their age. So the earlier you can start and try to get people to do that, I think the better and they’re already doing such a great job having conversations with their friends and family — hard conversations. And again the you know the goal of the Jr NBA Court of Leaders is to help develop them. Career readiness, community impact, respect, teamwork, all the Court of Leaders fundamentals. And they really already embody so many of those attributes, I’m seriously in awe of them, so to be able to try to start that as early as possible I think is amazing.
And then, from an on-court perspective, having the opportunity to speak to this next generation, they’re getting a chance to interact with pros and also with the best players their age from around the country. What does that do, do you think, on the court for them and getting to know more players who they’re going to see at these next levels as they continue to climb the ladder?
Yeah, I think it builds even more love for the game. You know, if I had a personal relationship with any professional player when I was growing up it would have been awesome. I would have been watching all their games. I would have been telling all my friends to watch other games. So it builds a relationship and it builds a connection between the two generations. So I think that’s also super important.