Last season, Minnesota Lynx two-time All-Star forward Napheesa Collier made her triumphant return to the lineup on August 7, just 10.5 weeks after giving birth to her daughter Mila on May 25.
PHEE IS BACK.— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) August 7, 2022
SHIMMY AND ALL pic.twitter.com/TZPTl7syna
Collier rejoined the team in early July after nearly 10 months away from the Lynx, the longest she had gone without playing basketball since she started playing. That time away wasn’t easy.
“I was watching every game. You have a serious sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) like, ‘I wish I was there’ kind of thing,” she explained to Canis Hoopus in Downtown Minneapolis last week. “This has been my life my whole life and to watch them from the sidelines is really hard.”
Even while she was in labor, Collier had a computer in her hospital bed so could watch the Lynx’s 84-79 victory over the New York Liberty on May 24, a moment that was captured in her ‘Motherhood’ documentary, produced by the WNBA.
That feeling fueled her comeback.
“That’s why I wanted to get back on the floor [in] the season to play last year with [Sylvia Fowles]. I knew it was her last year. So that was really hard to see her, knowing that I wasn’t gonna maybe get to play with her again.”
When she made her season debut, the 2019 Rookie of the Year received a hero’s welcome back from the Target Center crowd.
“It was just a really fun feeling to have the crowd be so excited for me to be there. It makes you feel good knowing that you’re missed,” Collier said, chuckling. “So it was fun. It was all the emotions. I was nervous to be out there. I hadn’t played in a while, I was excited to be back with the team, and it’s always fun at home. So, it was just like Christmas Day all wrapped up [into one].”
Now that Collier has had time to reflect on how incredible of an accomplishment it was for her to even return to the floor, let alone do so in the thick of an intense playoff run in Sylvia Fowles’ final season, she appreciates the magnitude of that feat.
Napheesa Collier gave birth 10.5 weeks ago and, somehow, is out here giving clutch buckets in the fourth quarter.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) August 8, 2022
Superwoman type stuff from the Lynx superstar pic.twitter.com/Yjox4Z5irS https://t.co/OsCpoKtEOO
“Sometimes I think about, like, ‘Wow, that was wild I did that,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t regret it whatsoever. I’m so glad that I got to be around the team. And my goal was to be able to play a game, but I was just happy to be around them, you know? So even if I didn’t get on the court, it was so nice to be around Syl in her last, you know, couple of weeks on the team, to be around my team again.”
Collier said the process of giving birth and then putting in all the grueling work went into her return reaffirmed what she knew about herself.
“I’ve always considered myself to be resilient and a hard worker. And that [journey] was a lot; it was way harder than I thought it was going to be to be able to play again,” Collier explained, after taking a few moments to collect her thoughts when asked a question about what she learned about herself.
“Obviously I wasn’t in tip-top shape or where my body usually is, but to where I got to is the hardest I’ve ever had to work to get my body into shape. And so, I was, more than anything, really proud of myself for what I did. It reaffirmed that I’m resilient. I worked my ass off to get there.”
After Collier proved to herself she could overcome the adversity she faced throughout that journey, the Lynx superstar feels confident she can accomplish anything that comes her way physically.
“I’m thinking about this offseason, like I still have to get back into game shape to where I normally am in game shape. I’m like, ‘Well, if I could do that, in that short amount of time, I have six months to get ready for the season; I can kill it.’”
Collier admitted that she probably came back too quickly and should’ve had a longer progression into playing the minutes she did, which factored into her decision to decline an invite to USA Basketball training camp ahead of the 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup.
“I was not going to be able to perform the way that I needed to perform in the World Cup. And I never want to go to USA and be anything less than my best,” she explained in an honest tone. “I also wanted to give my body the chance to get the muscle back the right way, to get back in shape the right way. And [I wanted] to spend time with my daughter.”
Mila was just six weeks old when Collier and her husband Alex moved back to Minnesota and nearly four months old when they returned to New Jersey following the season. But in those two-and-a-half months, Lynx players, coaches and staff showered Mila with all their love.
“It was amazing. They all surrounded her with so much love. They were all just obsessed with her. And it was so cool to see. She’s loved by so many people,” Collier said, before joking it might’ve given her teammate, now-pregnant Natalie Achonwa, a little baby fever. “It was so fun just to see how they were with her. So I’m really glad that they got that experience and Mila did, too.”
As the Lynx move forward into the 2023 season, they will be doing so without Sylvia Fowles, who retired this fall after an incredible 15-year career. Fowles absence will certainly be felt now that the anchor of the Lynx’s continually stout defense through the years is retired; but it will be felt even more so as the leader of the team on and off the court. The Hall-of-Fame-bound legend served a key role over the past four seasons as a beloved mentor to Collier, on whom she left an indelible mark.
Now, Collier is hoping to take a few things she learned from Fowles into this new era of Lynx basketball.
“Basketball-related from a vet standpoint, making sure that you bring the rookies in. Because I remember how huge that was for me when I came in. You’re so nervous to be on a new team and you feel like the outsider,” Collier explained. “To have the best player on the team come to you and take you under her wing ... it really made a huge difference. So I really want to implement that, too, when we have new people on the team making them feel really welcome.
“And then off the court just how she was as a person, how she treated everybody. Everyone loves Syl. Everyone calls her Mama Syl [for a reason],” Collier said, wearing the same wide smile Fowles always finds a way to put on her face.
“I just love that what she left you with... you might not remember everything she says, but you remember the feeling that she gave you every time that you had a conversation, so I just love that about her. And I would love to have that about me.”
Now, Syl returns the favor, calling her ‘Mama Phee.’
“She doesn’t ask about me anymore. She only asks about Mila,” Collier said while laughing, before imitating Fowles’ voice. “She’s like, ‘Where’s Mila? How’s Mila?’
“Syl is such a nurturing, loving person. Again, Mama Syl. She’s sprinkling her little pregnancy dust everywhere. She wants everyone on the team to get pregnant,” Collier joked, again unable to hold back a laugh. “So when she found out I was pregnant, she was over the moon. I don’t know if [me becoming a mom] brought us closer together, but Mila has another auntie for life now.”
But with Syl gone, it’s now Phee’s turn to take the reins and lead the Lynx into the future. While Collier’s teammates credit her for her having always been a great leader, she wants to continue to grow in that department.
“I definitely want to grow, always. And I think I’ve grown from where I was as a rookie, as a sophomore in the league, and I want to continue to grow. Something I want to work on is being more vocal in what I want and what I have expectations for, and holding people to standards on the team, because it’s not always easy holding people accountable.” Collier said, evidently excited about her growing leadership role and increased responsibility.
“I’ve always prided myself in [leading with] actions. I always work really hard ... but I want to be able to express that as well. That’s how I want my leadership to go. I still want to be who I am and lead by example, but also to encourage people vocally, and do it that way as well.”
Lynx President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Cheryl Reeve will certainly push her in that department. The four-time WNBA Champion coach has already had plenty of conversations with her franchise cornerstone about past situations in which she’d like Collier to be more assertive and vocal.
“Especially with Syl gone, I’m one of the only [players who played with members of the Lynx dynasty],” Collier said. “[Cheryl] really wants me to step into that leadership role and help me grow into that.”
Reeve and Collier share a special relationship that only figures to grow with all the time they will spend with each other between the Lynx and USA Basketball in the coming years.
“I think it’s a really good [relationship]. I trust Cheryl wholeheartedly. And something that I really like about her is she’ll tell you when you’re doing well and she’ll tell you when you’re doing badly,” Collier explained. “She’s not gonna blow smoke up your butt, which I really appreciate, because I want to I want to know what I’m doing wrong and how I can [improve]. I always trust what she’s saying, which I think is really huge.”
It will also be an important asset as the pair looks to work together this winter in reshaping a Lynx roster that currently has five players under contract for 2023.
“I think it’ll become even stronger because Syl was really like the main leader of our team in the past and she was really close to Cheryl and they would talk about things all the time and I’m stepping into that role now,” Collier said, still getting used to that notion. “I think we’ll just continue to get closer and to talk about how to help the team, what we’re going to do in the offseason, things like that.”
Reeve and Assistant General Manager Clare Duwelius will have plenty of options available to them as they look to build out the team for 2023 and beyond. While having more than $500,000 in cap space (per Her Hoop Stats) and a pair of first-round draft picks certainly help, building around one of the most versatile two-way players in the WNBA in Collier is the greatest competitive advantage they have.
As for Collier, she’s ready to be at the middle of their pivotal offseason.
“It’s really exciting. Free agency is always really fun just seeing where everyone is. And now we have the opportunity to get people on our team. So we’re going to be really aggressive. We’re just super excited to get that going and to start building our team.”
A key part of the Lynx’s team-building process will be the No. 2 overall pick. Whether it is used to select a rookie or as part of a trade package to upgrade the roster, Minnesota will have plenty of options as the draft approaches.
Collier was selected to represent the Lynx at the WNBA Draft Lottery in Bristol, CT at the ESPN headquarters last month with a simple mission: secure the No. 1 overall selection. Minnesota had a 10.4% chance of securing the first pick, 14.45% of No. 2, no chance of third, and a 75.15% chance of landing fourth.
“Cheryl, if you didn’t know, is the most superstitious person in the world,” Collier said before a fit of laughter interrupted her story. “‘Wear your lucky socks,’” Collier recalled Reeve telling her. “She wanted me to wear what I wore to the draft when I got drafted, that white dress. I was like ‘hmmmmmm.’”
All Collier could do was laugh.
“So if I would have gotten fourth, who knows if I would be one of the [players] under contract right now,” Collier joked. “But it was so fun. We only had a 14% chance, so when I didn’t hear our name called forth, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna get No. 1!’”
No matter who ends up taking the floor alongside Collier next summer, she has high expectations for the Minnesota Lynx.
“I expect us to be contenders this year. We’ve had a couple seasons where we’re not the most quote-unquote, talented team, but how together we are makes a huge difference. That chemistry that you have on the team can propel you farther than talent can,” Collier said confidently.
“Nine times out of 10, if you have a team who’s so talented, but they don’t like each other, they’re not going to go very far. So, regardless of who we get, I expect us to be a united front in whatever we’re doing, and I think that’s going to take us really far.”
Although she has only played in three full seasons, Collier has experienced what can happen when a team is connected on and off the floor.
“The bubble is the season I’m talking about the most. Everyone kind of wrote us off. They thought we were gonna come in bottom five at the very least, some people were saying last, and we made it to ... fourth place,” Collier said, before confirming the point that Fowles missed most of that season due to injury.
“That was definitely because like we were so close that year. Being in the bubble, especially, forced you to just hang out with your team all the time. So we really bonded, and we were playing out there for each other. That’s the most fun I’ve had (in the WNBA) so far.”
The 2020 bubble campaign can also serve as a blueprint, of sorts, for how the Lynx can find success without Fowles at the heart of it their schemes on both ends of the floor.
“If we’re playing as hard as we can, our system is a great one. Like if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, it’s really hard to beat us no matter how much talent we have,” Collier said. “You saw that with Syl. She’s the most talented person on the floor, and we didn’t have her, so we had to make up for in other ways and somehow we made it happen. So it’s possible.”
In order to make up for Fowles’ absence this time around, Collier is hard at work expanding her position-less game.
“No matter who we get, I think Cheryl’s gonna move me around. And I do take pride in that. I am a versatile player. So I’m preparing for whatever situation [comes my way]. Sometimes she even wants me to bring it up the floor,” Collier said.
Beyond that, the two-time All-Star is looking to develop specific skills this offseason.
“3-pointers and on the move 3s, definitely. I’ve been saying that for years, but I’m really excited to actually have the chance to get better this year. The past two years I was in France and then I was pregnant,” Collier said, noting the difference between playing competitively year-round and having an offseason to focus solely on skill development.
“So being able to actually prepare this offseason is going to be huge. I really want to get better coming off of ball screens, and [at] ball-handling.”
It will surely help that she doesn’t have to travel to work with a trainer.
Her husband, Alex Bazzell, is one of the most well-respected NBA and WNBA skills trainers in the United States. He has trained over 40 NBA players and 20 WNBA players over the last seven years, and also worked with the late, great Kobe Bryant to train Bryant’s daughter Gigi and help build out The Mamba Sports Academy beginning in 2018.
Given Collier’s utmost trust in both Reeve and Bazzell — and her relationships with both of them — it makes for a seamless line of communication about how Collier can best improve her game and help take the Lynx back to the top of the WNBA ladder.
The first step for Collier, though, is returning to the form she exhibited in 2020 and 2021 as an explosive driver, quick defender on the perimeter, and an advanced shooter.
“I’m really confident I’ll be able to get back to that point. I’m not 100% there yet. They say it takes a year for your body to go completely back to where it was. But I’m working every day on it and I’m doing the best that I can to try to get to that point,” she said. “It’s a process. It’s a progression. I’m trying to really make sure that I’m following the steps so that I am ready when the season starts.”
Collier will experience a full training camp for just the second time in what will be her fifth WNBA season next spring. Camp will not only be good for her physically, but also as a leader getting to know her teammates better.
“[It’s] really nice. [It also helps] the bonding of a team because those two weeks in training camp before the season starts, that’s all the time you have to bond before you guys are thrown to the wolves,” she said. “I am excited to be able to have that experience with my team again and for us to go through the highs and lows together, because it’s also hard when people have those two weeks to get the rust off and then you’re jumping in after that.”
And once Collier and her Lynx teammates jump in, she’s ready to hold herself and her teammates to the gold standard that the Minnesota Lynx organization has set over the past decade-plus.
“My expectations haven’t changed. I still expect myself to be the player I was [before my pregnancy]. I always hope to score a lot of points, but [I want to do] all the things that aren’t on the scoreboard, defensive things, and making sure that I’m working as hard as I can and making sure I’m there for my team,” she said.
“All those expectations are the same. I’m excited for free agency to see who we get, who I’m going to be playing with, and I’m excited to have 20 home games. It’s going to be a good season.”