The Minnesota Lynx knew the 2023 season would be a development year, not focusing on wins or losses but rather focusing on growth and improvement while riding the rollercoaster that can come with that process.
With an insertion of youth and some areas of growth needed on the team as it continues its transition from the dynasty era into a new era of Lynx basketball, the Lynx were upfront from day one of training camp that their success wouldn’t be measured by overall record or how far they reached in the season, but rather the improvements seen within their own building.
“At the beginning of our season, as a staff we felt a great deal of uncertainty around exactly who we were and what we were going to be good at,” Lynx Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Cheryl Reeve said recently on the Hitting the Hardwood Podcast with Mitchell Hansen. “We knew it would be an evolution and that we were going to be focused on development. ... Then as we hit the go button and the lights came on, we’re playing games and sort of learning about the team on the fly.”
With Minnesota in somewhat unfamiliar territory of focusing more on development rather than season-end success, it managed to accomplish what it set out to do in 2023 — development and growth. But it also found success along the way, returning to the playoffs a year after failing to do so and taking the opening-round matchup against Connecticut to a series-deciding three games.
“I think the thing for all of us was that we tried not to focus on results. What we were focused on was that we felt like we were right there,” Reeve said. “The team felt like that and as a staff we felt like that we just need to keep staying the course and focus on just developing and improving.”
Development of Rookies
One important aspect to the development of the Lynx in 2023 was getting rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász up to speed fast with their new WNBA team.
From day one, Miller was thrown into the starting lineup — by design — and Juhász ended up taking over a starting role shortly after due to injuries elsewhere on the roster.
“One of the first things coming out of the gates was we really talked about that we had the number two pick for a reason and that player was going to get a tremendous opportunity with our organization. We were very, very committed to that as we inserted her into the starting lineup,” Reeve said of Miller. “It’s a lot easier to put that player on the court and go okay, now do you see what we’re talking about? Now it’s easier for them to envision what it feels like and the work necessary to improve and we did that with Diamond from day one.”
In 32 appearances over her rookie campaign, Miller averaged 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 0.9 steals over 26.1 minutes per contest. She also earned WNBA Rookie of the Month honors in July and was named to the WNBA All-Rookie Team.
“I thought that her growth, that was really fun to see and some of the challenges that she really started to embrace,” Reeve said. “She’s a very, very competitive person and doesn’t want to fail in anything, not even for a small drill. Those are signs of a really good player.”
As for Juhász, she came in with lower expectations as a second-round pick, but many thought she could be poised to have a breakout season and prove to everyone she was the steal of the draft. At year’s end, that was indeed the case as she emerged as a key addition to the starting lineup over the second half of the season.
“I think with the evolution of Dorka Juhasz, largely as a result of the opportunity that presented itself because of some injuries that we had on the team, maybe there was growth there that we didn’t necessarily know that the opportunity would be as great as it was. Dorka made an awful lot out of the opportunity that came her way,” Reeve said. “Whatever we gave her, she did.”
Juhász completed the season appearing in 38 of the 40 regular-season games, starting in 27 of those contests. She averaged 6.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.9 steals over 24.2 minutes per game while also earning WNBA All-Rookie honors.
“Her emotional maturity is really high and her preparation. She was another one that really had this never too high, never too low. Just a really quiet confidence,” Reeve said of Juhász. “It was just a really healthy season for her where she too sort of felt like she now has an understanding of what she needs to work on because she experienced it firsthand.”
Not only did Minnesota get valuable experience for the two rookies, but they took that pressure and that journey in stride. And now Miller and Juhász will be two building blocks for the Lynx for years to come.
“Positives for our season is we found a certain level of success while growing with two of our rookies,” Reeve added. “We grew and evolved as a team with our stated goal of focusing on youth and focusing on the future and people that would be with us in the future. That was one of the biggest success stories of the season.”
Growth of Veterans
As is the case with any team in the WNBA, when your best players take their game up a notch, that makes the overall team better. For the Lynx, they got exactly that from the veteran duo of Napheesa Collier and Kayla McBride, who grew into a strong pairing to lead Minnesota in 2023.
For Collier, she took another step in her stardom, returning for a full season this summer after missing most of the 2022 campaign due to her pregnancy. Collier not only returned to the form of what we saw earlier in her career, but she put herself firmly in the MVP conversation while leading Minnesota on a nightly basis.
“The leadership and evolution of Napheesa Collier was just incredible to be around, she was just spectacular,” Reeve said. “I think there were a fair amount of people and prognosticators, when they looked at the projection for the Lynx, I don’t know that they saw Napheesa being able to achieve that level and be able to carry our team the way that she did. Phee and I saw that and saw that as a possibility.”
In 37 games, Collier averaged a career-best 21.5 points (fourth in the WNBA), 8.5 rebounds (seventh in the WNBA), 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals (sixth in the WNBA) and 1.2 blocks (tied for sixth in the WNBA) per game. That earned the fifth-year star a fourth-place finish in the 2023 MVP voting while being named All-WNBA First Team, All-Defensive Second Team and The Associated Press’ Co-Comeback Player of the Year.
“Certainly, our success hinged upon her development. To be an MVP candidate the way that she was, to be a top-five player the way that she was, and it was fun to be around. She’s just a tremendous teammate and a tremendous superstar,” Reeve said of Collier. “I said when she started acting like our best player, then everything changed for our team. She was spectacular. ... She was such a great leader for us this season, and frankly, she took another step from a leadership standpoint.”
Along with Collier, McBride emerged as an even bigger leader during the 2023 season and provided the Lynx with a valued veteran to lead the team on both ends of the court. That was enough for Reeve and Co. to sign McBride to a two-year extension to keep in a Lynx uniform.
“I think in year three of her three-year contract, what we saw from her is exactly what we needed to see. I just thought she grew tremendously from a leadership standpoint and the ways in which she was giving. I’ll tell you what, it was a big help to Phee,” Reeve said. “K-Mac has been through it all.”
McBride had her best season in Minnesota in 2023, appearing in 38 games while averaging 31.8 minutes per contest. McBride averaged 14.3 points, her highest total since 2018, adding 3.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals while helping lead the team both on the court and off.
“Her range of experiences were really valuable to this team. I didn’t necessarily mark that down as a thing that was something we could count on (this season). I was really pleased to see that she was willing to give up herself in that way,” Reeve said. “For someone like Kayla McBride to embrace where her feet were and to give of herself in the ways that she did. ... I think she just grew as a person and I think she’ll tell you that. I thought it was a big contributor to our success.”
Collier and McBride both grew individually in 2023, but they grew even closer as a pair. And that duo and its continued evolvement will be key to the success of the Lynx again in 2024 and for years to come.
“I loved the evolution of Phee and K-Mac as a duo,” Reeve said. “One of my favorite parts of the season was the synergy that those two had.”
The Lynx had plenty of positives to draw from the 2023 season, notably returning to the playoffs and winning a postseason contest during a year when many thought they wouldn’t do much.
In the end, Minnesota just wanted to improve while focusing on the development and growth of key players on the roster. And the success they had in that was perhaps the biggest positive to exit the 2023 campaign with as Minnesota continues to build toward an even brighter future ahead.
Listen to the Full Podcast
Hear the entire Hitting the Hardwood podcast with Cheryl Reeve, including her full reflection of the 2023 season and what she thought of the year that was, some players that stepped up throughout the year, what surprises popped up over the summer, what the Lynx might do this offseason, what the team is focused on in 2024 and beyond, and more.