Coming into the season in 2023 after missing all but four regular-season games in 2022, Minnesota Lynx star Napheesa Collier admitted she didn’t know what kind of player she would be after giving birth or if she would return to the form of which we once saw earlier in her WNBA career.
It was a long journey back to even stepping on the court again for Collier, let alone attempting to return to All-WNBA level like over her first few years as a pro. But Collier, who is the proud mother of her daughter Mila alongside her husband Alex Bazzell, worked around the clock to rehab and get herself back to being a top talent in the league while reminding us all how dominant of a player she could be.
“It was a lot. The offseason was pretty hard, just coming back from pregnancy was a lot harder than I anticipated. My body didn’t react very well to it, I had a lot of issues that I had to rehab throughout the year, so it was really hard,” Collier said at the close of the season. “Then coming back into the beginning of the season, obviously I had a huge push to try and get ready for that. Just continuing with my rehab, making sure that I’m doing everything I can in the offseason and then with [Lynx trainer] Chuck [Barta] as well to just try and get ready for the season. … It felt like this was my first time really playing in over a year of real basketball.
“I was really proud of the growth that I had and also that our team had. … I’m really proud of the journey that we had this year and the growth that we had, because it definitely wasn’t easy and I felt like we overcame a lot of diversity.”
In her first full season since 2021, Collier not only returned to the player she once was, one that earned her Rookie of the Year honors in 2019 and All-Star selections in two of her first three years, but she took her game up a notch as the face of the Lynx franchise while excelling to an MVP level and putting the team on her back on a nightly basis.
“I think Phee had an MVP-caliber season, which carried us a lot. Her back was hurting at the end of the season because she was carrying us all year,” said Kayla McBride, referencing the lower back injury Collier suffered in the first-round playoff series against Connecticut.
Leading the Lynx
As the official new face of the franchise and as the lone captain on the Lynx team in 2023, Minnesota had high expectations for Collier to take the next step as a player and as a leader this summer.
But it’s hard to have predicted that Collier would that as good of a year as she did this season after being sidelined for nearly the entire year prior.
“Phee just has a way about her. She’s so consistent and steady, very emotionally mature. Connects with everyone, regardless of personality. They all just trust her and believe in her,” Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve said of Collier. “She’s just in a space where she brings her very best everyday, the way that she is coachable and the way that she receives information from her coaches. That’s contagious.
“Sometimes you have superstars that don’t really have time for other people. Phee is just the opposite of that.”
As the leader of the Lynx throughout the 2023 campaign, Collier took the next step in her career while putting together an MVP-type year.
In 37 games, missing a few games in the middle of the season with an ankle injury, Collier averaged a career-best 21.5 points per game, which was the fourth-highest mark in the WNBA. She also tallied 8.5 rebounds (seventh in the league), 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals (sixth in the league) and 1.2 blocks (tied for sixth in the league) a game. Over that span, Collier posted shooting marks of 48.5% from the field and improved from deep, shooting 29.8% from downtown, which was her highest 3-point mark since she shot a career-high 40.8% in 2020.
“I think I’m proud of the resilience of the year. It was such a hard offseason, I didn’t know what I was going to look like coming into the season. It was really tough, just the rehab I had to go through,” Collier said. “Then to come back, I think just that will that I had to want to be great this season was really high, the highest it’s ever been. I felt like that allowed me to push through a mental barrier, whatever it was, to know that I am a great player and I can perform like this every night. That was really fun to kind of grow and I felt like I saw myself grow this year as a leader, as a person, as a player.”
Establishing a 1-2 Punch With McBride
A key aspect to the Lynx star having the type of year that she had was due to the connection Collier and McBride established throughout the year, something Reeve admitted wasn’t necessarily something the Lynx set out to accomplish in 2023.
“I loved the evolution of Phee and K-Mac as a duo. That was a huge story for us. I can’t sit here and tell you we came into this season with this vision that we were going to make them this really special duo. They found their synergy, the trust they had in each other. … I think that was maybe one of my favorite parts of the season was the synergy between them.
“I can’t say enough about what Phee does for K-Mac. The joy K-Mac played with this year, she just feels really connected,” Reeve continued. “I think with those two, we can continue to grow with that. … They were just really a tremendous duo and I can see that continuing to grow.”
As a pair, Collier and McBride established a “Batman and Robin” type duo, taking the Lynx to the next level when they were both having strong games on both ends of the court. Offensively, when those two scored 20 or more points, Minnesota was nearly undefeated during the regular season and secured a win in the postseason when they did so. In that playoff victory, Collier and McBride became the first duo in Lynx history to both score over 25 points in the same game.
first time in Lynx history that two players have had 25+ points each in a playoff game. pic.twitter.com/1RNfbHJfdJ— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) September 17, 2023
The relationship Collier established with McBride helped take her game to the next level, as it did in return for the veteran McBride. Their evolution as a pair grew throughout the year and will only continue to grow as their relationship evolves in the future.
“We just build such a camaraderie and a respect and trust with one another, that it doesn’t really matter who is Batman and Robin, just kind of go out there and do it,” McBride said. “We have a lot of love for each other and this game, so we just kind of coexist that way.”
Pheeling Good About the Bright Future in Minnesota
The Lynx hoped Collier’s return in 2023 would lead to her taking the next step in her career, and exactly that occurred over her fifth year in the WNBA. Both with her play on the court and as a leader.
Not only did she return to All-Star, All-WNBA and All-Defensive levels, but Collier made that next lead toward an MVP level while putting the Lynx on her back in each game and helping lift Minnesota back to the postseason in 2023.
“Napheesa Collier is a top five player in the league,” Reeve said. “We’re in a situation where Phee, in her young career, took a huge step to be an MVP candidate for much of the season. … That’s the next evolution, and I’m thrilled that we put ourselves in this position, to have a chance for Phee…to take that next step.”
As the Lynx look ahead to the future, Collier will without a doubt be at the center of every decision the franchise makes. And if her career continues on the path that it has to this point, the future will be bright in Minnesota, which could soon be building around an MVP contender for years to come.
“She’s going to be an MVP in this league,” Connecticut Sun head coach Stephanie White said after Game 3 in the first round of the playoffs. “She’s a player that every year has continued to get better. ... She’s a unique and special talent.”