In 2022, Napheesa Collier knew she wasn’t ready to return to the Minnesota Lynx as soon as she did following the birth of her daughter Mila in May of that year, but she wanted to at least take the floor with Sylvia Fowles for a few games before the legendary center retired.
Collier rejoined the Lynx in early July 2022 after roughly 10 months away from the team, going on to play four games to finish the year and send her close friend Fowles off into retirement after 15 seasons in the league. The time away wasn’t easy for Collier, who even watched some Lynx games from her hospital bed while planning how she would make a return to the court.
The time away fueled Collier to do all she could to get back on the court, even though that process took a bit longer than originally hoped.
“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 said at the end of the 2022 season. “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.
“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.”
The work that went into Collier’s return has paid off, resulting in her returning to All-Star and potentially even MVP form in 2023 as the leader of Minnesota in a new era of Lynx basketball. Collier is not only the player she once was earlier in her career, but she’s even better in her fifth season.
But that journey to returning to top shape wasn’t easy, as Collier has publicly stated numerous times. In fact, at one point, there was doubt of whether or not she could return anywhere near to form that she once was.
The Journey Back
When the 2022 season concluded, Collier knew she needed to spend the offseason getting back to full strength before the 2023 campaign tipped off. As the leader of the Lynx, she knew her team needed her more than ever to lead the way.
The process of getting back to form was assisted by Collier’s husband Alex Bazzell, who is a WNBA and NBA skills trainer and co-founder of Through the Lens. Bazzell has worked with players such as Kobe and GiGi Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Candace Parker and Collier, among many others.
The two started working together to get Collier back, starting with 15-minute workouts to not only build up stamina but more so to not overload Collier’s joints and body too quickly.
“It was kind of a shocking revelation that women have to go through what they go through and then compound that with an athlete trying to make her way back. It was not easy for her,” Bazzell said on the Hitting the Hardwood podcast. “I think she’s made it look very easy, but there were times she really struggled. There were times she didn’t even know if her body was ultimately going to bounce back. She went through a lot of knee issues, she went through a lot of back and hip issues.
“That’s the biggest thing that I’m probably most proud of. We got to a point in January where we didn’t know if she was ever going to return to form or the level she needed to. She didn’t have any pop, she couldn’t lift on any fade away, she couldn’t do the simple things that we kind of have taken for granted.”
During the initial stages of Collier’s rehab process, she sometimes had to get shut down for two to three weeks in order to get her body back to neutral after trying to do too much too early to return. That was the biggest hurdle for Collier and Bazzell, who were also in constant communication with Lynx head trainer Chuck Barta to develop a plan for Collier to return in a safe manner.
“She’s been on record saying she shouldn’t have returned [in 2022], but she did because of Syl. I think that goes back to the testament of what kind of person and teammate she is, but she wasn’t anywhere close. I’m just glad she got through that without injury,” Bazzell said.
“It was just a slow build up. We probably went two months where there was just a lot of uncertainty of what she would get back to before ultimately getting to training camp. There was still some question marks of where was her body,” Bazzell continued. “We felt really good about her shot and skills and we were able to hone in on that. As an athlete, you have to perform at a top-line level.
“It was just kind of a balance and a struggle, the mental battle that she had to go through.”
The Return to All-WNBA Level
There’s no question the battle back was a long and uncertain one for Collier, but she is back at full strength in 2023 and she feels like she has returned to the “Old Phee” we saw before missing nearly a full season in 2022.
“It takes a lot of time for your body to get back,” Collier said earlier this season. ”But I feel great and I’m really excited to just feel like my old self again.”
Not only has Collier returned to the form that we saw over the first few years of her WNBA career, but she’s taken her game up a notch en route to earning her third All-Star appearance this summer and playing at an MVP-caliber level while sitting in the top three in the league in scoring, on pace to be a career-high mark, nearing the midway point in August.
“Her season has been outstanding,” Bazzell said of Collier. “What we always talk about is taking everything in stride and never becoming complacent. What we’re happy about is the mental aspect of the game. To me, that’s the most important thing.
“If you ask me, now where are we trying to go from here? It’s pretty simple. I think for her, it’s now becoming more of a creator for others. We know she can get her own shot, but that is probably the next step of her progression that we will probably really lean into this offseason.”
The journey over the last year-plus was worth it for Collier, Bazzell and their daughter Mila in growing into a family of three. As for the play on the court, all the work and the ups and the downs that occurred, although it was a long road, Collier is back to being one of the top players in the WNBA in 2023 and could continue to improve from here.
And that’s a testament to the relentless and hard work that has gone on behind the scenes spanning from May 2022 to the present day.
“I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of. Sure, I’m very proud that she’s accomplishing what she’s accomplishing on the court. But just the relentlessness to get back to that level. You just can’t describe it,” Bazzell said. “It was just such an incredible journey. That’s why I’m most proud of now that she’s been able to do what she’s doing.”