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Two Important Developmental Trends Continue, Power Lynx Over Sparks

Star forward Napheesa Collier’s confident scoring and rookie center Dorka Juhász’s defensive versatility continue to develop nicely for the Lynx.

Minnesota Lynx v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Lynx came back to defeat the Los Angeles Sparks 77-72 on the road Friday night for their second consecutive victory over their biggest rival. As our guy Leo Sun (who was in the building in L.A.) wrote in his tremendous recap, Sparks point guard Jordin Canada was phenomenal, but couldn’t match the second half that Minnesota superstar Napheesa Collier put together.

Minnesota Lynx v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

A Blossoming Scoring Force

After she needed a few games to grow accustomed to her new role as the No. 1 scoring option — and not to mention getting her legs under her after missing essentially all of last season after giving birth in May, 2022 — Collier is settling in and looks awfully comfortable as the unquestioned leader of the pack.

Minnesota’s lone 2023 team captain thrived as a connective linchpin on both ends of the floor beside Sylvia Fowles in her first three seasons, and at times was the No. 3 scoring option in 2021 behind Fowles and Aerial Powers. But this season, Head Coach Cheryl Reeve has desperately needed her to take on more of the scoring load, especially now that Powers and No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller are both out with right ankle sprains.

The two-time All-Star scored an efficient 12 points on 4/6 shooting in the first half on Friday, but Minnesota still found themselves in a nine-point hole entering halftime because outside of Collier and forward Nina Milić, the Lynx shot 4/14 (28.6%).

Collier emerged from the locker room determined to put the Lynx on her back and lead the way for a struggling offense. The former UCONN star scored the team’s first seven points of the third quarter in just 2:11 of game time, nearly erasing the Sparks’ lead by herself.

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She added onto it with a game-tying put-back late in the quarter to give her nine points in the frame on 4/5 shooting, all while refraining from turning it over.

The 2019 Rookie of the Year then came back in the fourth quarter with two big plays.

After sinking a free throw to extend the lead to three, Collier rotated over and combined with Dorka Juhász to lock down Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike.

Superstars show up when you need ‘em most. After an offensive possession that didn’t get anywhere in the first 18 seconds of the shot clock, Collier put the game in her own hands.

Collier’s dominant scoring output to open the second half highlighted just how important of a development her growing confidence is for this team. Everyone on the team loves her. She has a gravitational personality that pulls the group closer together and leads by example in nature, which makes the moments during which she speaks up even more powerful. But when her game can do the talking in the game-changing way it did on Friday, it breaths confidence into the entire team.

After Collier’s opening three field goals of the half, four additional Lynx players scored in the third quarter (compared to three in the entire first half alone) en route to an ultra-efficient 24 points on 10/16 shooting (62.5%) for Minnesota. The ball flowed nicely, as the Lynx racked up five dimes to only two turnovers. That confidence carried into the fourth as Lindsay Allen scored or assisted on the first seven points of the quarter and helped the Lynx build a lead; that allowed Phee — who played the entire second half — to catch her breath while still on the floor, and create some distance from the Sparks until Collier got it to the finish line.

Phee finished the game with 25 points on a ridiculous 78.1% true shooting (7/8 2PT | 1/4 3PT | 6/8 FT), grabbed six rebounds (two offensive), recorded three stocks and turned it over just once in 38 minutes played. Collier scored at least 20 points for the third straight game, tying Kayla McBride (2021) for the longest such streak by a Lynx player since Maya Moore did so in seven straight games in 2018, per ESPN. If the soon-to-be three-time All-Star is able to score at least 24 tonight in Las Vegas, she’ll become the third player in franchise history (Moore, Seimone Augustus) to score 24+ in four straight games, per Across the Timeline.

Collier’s defense has always been excellent since she entered the league in 2019. But seeing her take the next step offensively and becoming a truly dominant scorer on that end of the floor is what can take the Lynx from “promising young team” to “force to be reckoned with” as Reeve and General Manager Clare Duwelius build out the roster.

The Lynx star in the offseason worked tirelessly with her husband, NBA and WNBA skills trainer Alex Bazzell, to add a more consistent 3-point jumper to an already impressive portfolio of scoring tools. That work is already paying off, as Collier’s 34.3% mark is vastly improved from her 2021 (25.3%) output.

Defenders so far this season have had no chance to stop her in the mid-range when Collier catches the basketball with her back to the basket. She’s right there with MVPs A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart in terms of her skill in the mid-range and how lethal she is when she turns and faces.

Collier ranks sixth in the WNBA in both post-up efficiency (1.143 PPP) among those with a minimum of 15 reps, and points per game on those post-ups (4.0), per Synergy Sports. Her more traditional catches and moves on the low block are key parts of that success. Because she has guard skills at 6-1, teams often try to defend her with guards; the problem with that strategy is that Collier can overwhelm them in the post, where she’s relied upon excellent footwork, strength, and a soft touch to finish off a wide array of moves.

The way Collier can grab the ball off the rim and take it in transition is another crucial element of her offensive impact. It’s rare for a wing to boast Phee’s combination of long strides, great agility, and a good handle, and she makes good on it by creating points for herself and others as a handler on the break.

And when she doesn’t have the ball, the fan favorite utilizes her exceptional court awareness and timing to make cuts any young basketball player should look to emulate. Whether it’s from the slot, the top of the key, or off of inbounds plays, Reeve does a great job of scheming up opportunities for Collier to weaponize that part of her game.

Awareness and timing also comes in handy on the offensive glass. Collier will often cut to the basket when her teammates are driving on the opposite side of the floor; if she gets a pass, she can finish, and if she doesn’t, she hangs around to crash the boards. Whereas some eager offensive rebounders will crash at poor times, and at the expense of the team’s transition defense, that is rarely an issue with Collier.

Development is paramount for Reeve’s team, and her best player taking the leap from star to superstar is the best possible foundation upon which the Lynx season can continue to grow from here.

Rookie development was projected to be a core part of that plan for 2023, but that is now playing out differently than the Lynx anticipated entering the season. No. 2 overall pick Diamond Miller suffered a nasty right ankle sprain against the Dallas Wings last month in the team’s fifth game of the season, during what was already her best showing of her rookie campaign. Miller has missed the team’s five games since then, and is still without a timetable for return; but she did progress out of a walking boot last weekend — undoubtedly a good sign. As a result, Juhász, the team’s second-round rookie center, has assumed the rookie spotlight, starting in all five of the games Miller has missed.

Minnesota Lynx v Washington Mystics Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Dorka Juhász’s Defensive Versatility

When the Lynx were on the clock at No. 12 overall, the final pick of the first round in the 2023 WNBA Draft, they were faced with a choice: do they secure a coveted draft-and-stash prospect with a sky-high ceiling, or take a W-ready player with better short-term skills?

Reeve, Duwelius and Co. opted for the former, selecting 19-year-old French phenom Maïa Hirsch. But when the draft came back to them at No. 16 overall, the fourth pick of the second round, the latter was there for them, and they jumped at the opportunity to select Juhász.

The four-time WNBA Champion coach has raved about Juhász maturity, work ethic and eagerness to improve, which has served the rookie incredibly well in the her first month and change as a pro. Those intangibles earned Juhász a consistent role early in the season, including five starts. That is something Reeve didn’t envision when she made the call to select the former UCONN star back in April. But the fact that Reeve can trust her rookie is certainly something she has to be very pleased with.

From the first time she stepped on the Target Center floor for the first preseason game, the Pécs, Hungary native has since flexed her aggression defensively as a mobile center willing to switch onto guards in pick-and-roll.

Where she needed to become more consistent, however, was with her interior defense. Juhász’s instincts have been good, but her timing with late contests (resulting in fouls) and understanding where she needs to be positioned in the team’s defensive concepts have presented opportunity for growth. On Friday night, she put on display a great step forward in her development, especially in the fourth quarter.

Here, Juhász is tasked with guarding Ogwumike, a seven-time All-Star, which is quite the task for a rookie down the stretch of a rivalry matchup. But like she has with every challenge thrown her way this season, Juhász faced it head on. Nneka flashes to the middle, but Dorka shades her to off hand, and times the contest perfectly.

Then, Juhász shifted her attention the Nneka’s younger sister Chiney. Instead of jumping, the rookie holds her ground and forces a turnover.

After joining forces with Collier for the stop I referenced in the last section, Juhász then found herself with the stage lights pointed on her. Sparks Head Coach Curt Miller wanted to run yet another post-up for Nneka to see if Juhász would crack. Instead, the rookie put together her best defensive rep of the season. She moves her feet very well, and fights to stay with Ogwumike in order to force the ball to Dearica Hamby instead, and then walls up in the biggest moment of the game to seal the win for the Lynx.

Juhász is eighth in the WNBA in post-ups defended per game (2.1), per Synergy Sports. Among those with at least 15 post-ups defended, the Lynx rookie ranks fourth in the league in points per possession allowed on those post-ups (0.810); two of the players in front of her — Seattle Storm center Ezi Magbegor and Connecticut Sun Swiss Army Knife Alyssa Thomas — are All-Defensive Team caliber defenders, so that’s great company for the rookie to keep.

The more often she can stack strong defensive performances both on the perimeter and interior, the more she’ll see the floor, and the better the Minnesota defense will be.