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Napheesa Collier Speaks Softly, but She Looms Large Over the WNBA Rookie of the Year Race

The Lynx guard has helped carry Minnesota through a season of transition and into the playoffs. And along the way, she’s put herself into a position to achieve one of her many hoop dreams.

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There are only two things about Napheesa Collier that are loud: her game, and her sneakers. When I meet the Minnesota Lynx rookie at the Luxe City Center Hotel for dinner ahead of a road game against the Los Angeles Sparks, she’s quiet. She answers questions about the college-to-WNBA transition, her childhood, and what it was like to play for UConn coach Geno Auriemma dutifully and thoughtfully, all while sticking to her talking points. That is, until we get to her game-day shoes.

Collier owns multicolored, custom Nike Kyrie 5s that have meaningful symbols airbrushed all over them: The UConn Husky logo and number 24 don the left sneaker; the St. Louis skyline—symbolizing her hometown—and “Phee,” with a crowned “P,” decorate the right. Both heels carry the West African proverb that President Teddy Roosevelt made famous in 1901: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Collier says that phrase resonates with her and the ideology behind it matches her personality.

“I’m not really a vocal person,” Collier says. “Even my game isn’t super flashy. But I get stuff done.”

Collier has harnessed her big-stick energy in her rookie season. She leads the Lynx in minutes (33.3 per game—which tops the WNBA too) and steals (1.9). The 6-foot-1 guard also leads the 2019 draft class in the same categories, plus efficiency (17.4). In July, she became the only rookie to make a 2019 WNBA All-Star team. She averaged 15.9 points in August, which earned her a Western Conference Player of the Week honor and helped her team clinch a playoff spot for the ninth straight season. And she did all of this on a team in transition.

The once juggernaut-like Lynx were facing a crossroads when head coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve drafted Collier no. 6 overall in April. Just two months earlier, Maya Moore had announced that she was taking a sabbatical for the season. Guard Lindsay Whalen retired at the end of the 2018 campaign, and center Rebekkah Brunson was a question mark to return because of concussion symptoms (she ultimately decided not to play this year). Even without those three Lynx staples on the floor, though, Collier’s Swiss Army knife skill set has kept Minnesota afloat.

“It’s fun to watch, isn’t it?” Reeve says, lighting up as she talks about her prized rook. “I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t have Napheesa. We’re trying to keep our head above water, and she’s helped us do that.”

Despite her typically reserved demeanor, one thing Collier (and the Lynx PR team) is not shy about is advocating for her to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award. The debate over which player should earn the Tiffany & Co. trophy has become a hot topic in the women’s basketball sphere, and Collier is one of the two front-runners, along with Dallas’s Arike Ogunbowale. She doesn’t seem anxious about the upcoming announcement, though—more zen because she feels she’s earned the consideration. “It was the main goal I set for myself, starting this season off,” Collier says, “so the fact that I’m so close feels pretty good.” And although she’s only been working toward ROY for one season, her hoop dreams originated long before that.

“Is basketball still something you want to do?”

Collier’s parents would ask her that after each season growing up. They were checking the inventory, making sure the sport was still a source of joy for their daughter.

“We didn’t want our kids to think that a sport defined them,” Napheesa’s mother, Sarah, told Bleacher Report in April.

In other words, ball is not life.

“I mean, it was never life,” Collier says with a shrug and a sheepish smile. Growing up, she stayed busy with other things. She played goalie on the soccer team in the fall, picked up basketball in the winter, and ran track in the spring. She took up boxing as a hobby and eventually added tap dancing and sign language to her list of expertise. In between practices, you’ll find her nose in a good book.

Collier didn’t even start watching basketball until she was in college, but despite her limited exposure to professional hoops, she dominated in high school—first at Missouri’s Jefferson City High School, then at Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis. By her senior year, she was averaging 26.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game; she’d been named Missouri’s Gatorade Player of the Year twice, and had led her squad to three state championships. Incarnate Word retired Collier’s jersey in December. Now it waves in the rafters next to the titles she helped win. “She’s the best basketball player to ever come out of Missouri,” IWA coach Dan Rolfes said after the ceremony. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Collier was ranked no. 1 in the state coming out of high school in 2015 and in the top 10 nationally, according to espnW. She considered going to UConn, Notre Dame, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, but the Huskies won out. “I knew that I wanted to play professionally, and I knew [UConn] was going to get me the best prepared to do that,” she told the Hartford Courant’s Chris Brodeur on his UConn Insider podcast last month. “And that’s exactly what they did.”

During those four years, you’d occasionally hear Auriemma’s shouts of “PHEEE-SSAAA!” echoing around Gampel Pavilion when his star missed a defensive assignment or didn’t secure a rebound. But Collier learned early to take those outbursts in stride and not let it get under her skin. Auriemma’s tough-love approach has earned him 11 NCAA championships, after all, and it’s helped drive 13 active UConn players into the WNBA. The only program that comes close to that number of players is Notre Dame, with nine.

The list of Husky legends features some of the best to ever do it (in case you forgot: Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, and Sue Bird suited up for UConn at the same time), and Collier’s a part of that group. She ranks third in all-time scoring at UConn, fourth in rebounds, and seventh in blocks. She was also the team’s fifth player to reach the 2,000-point/1,000-rebound club, along with Moore, Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, and Rebecca Lobo.

“If every player worked as hard as Pheesa on the floor, they would be a lot better than they are,” Auriemma said during her senior season, when she averaged a double-double. “There’s very few players in America that have Pheesa’s motor. She just goes. She goes after every rebound. She’s constantly trying to get involved in every play. There isn’t a time when she just runs down the floor and says, ‘I need some time off.’”

Gabby Williams agrees. The Chicago Sky forward grew close with Collier during their three years together at UConn. Williams was drafted fourth overall by the Sky ahead of Collier’s senior season, and throughout that year, Collier would FaceTime Williams for guidance about what to expect going forward. Williams became her WNBA guru, answering questions about the draft process, advising her on to what to ask her agent, and urging her to save her money because that direct deposit wasn’t going to hit for a minute. That UConn bond mirrors one of a tight-knit sorority. (We Survived Coach Geno’s Disappointment Face Alpha Psi.) And the many sorority sisters sprinkled throughout the league help with the transition from college to the WNBA. When Williams was drafted in 2018, she gravitated toward Stefanie Dolson, the former UConn All-American center who was a member of the Sky. “She helped me through my rookie year, giving all the advice in the world, and she took me under her wing,” Williams explains. That kicked off a chain reaction, with Williams reaching out to Chicago rookie Katie Lou Samuelson after she was drafted this spring. “I was going to help her out and do what I can,” Williams says. “The same thing I’m doing with Phee.”

Now, Williams has a front-row seat to the WNBA star Collier’s becoming. “The composure that she’s had and her fearlessness—that’s something that can’t really be taught in the league,” Williams says. “I think it’s the thing that most rookies struggle with. I know I struggled with it. … She doesn’t let the physicality or the state of the game change how she plays. She’s not afraid to take shots, not afraid to attack, she doesn’t care who’s who in the league, she’s going to go and get hers.”

Collier went from one powerhouse program in Connecticut to another in Minnesota, and there she’s found a new home. She lets Reeve do most of the yelling—like she did with Auriemma at UConn—as well as most of the talking. She doesn’t say much unless she has to. Her coach and teammates acknowledge that she’s slowly integrating her voice into huddles, half-time discussions, and those dreaded film sessions. But her game has been doing the speaking for her—and it’s been running its mouth. In the last week of regular season alone, she racked up 45 points, 24 rebounds, and five steals in three games. Not that she’s keeping track.

“I don’t know what my stats are,” Collier says. “My mom sends me them sometimes, but I don’t know what my averages are for anything.”

She’s more concentrated on her defensive performances. Did she keep her charge under their per-game average? Did she fight through screens to stay with her player? Did she close out tight, hand high, to discourage the 3?

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Defense is personal to her. “That was the thing I was most getting in trouble for in college, my younger years,” Collier says. “And then I got Defensive Player of the Year senior year in our conference, so …” She takes a sip of her water like Kermit the Frog sipping his tea. Though just a rookie, she’s been tasked with guarding the best player on the opposing team—regardless of position—multiple times. While matched up against Phoenix last week, Collier held DeWanna Bonner, the league’s fifth-highest scorer, to only eight points. With her Durantula-like arms and 6-foot-6 wingspan, she can defend and switch positions 1 through 5. Her defensive win shares, which are second best in the league, are one of the reasons she’s so highly regarded in this Rookie of the Year race.

On the offensive end, Collier’s soft touch around the rim, her ability to finesse her way into the paint, and her tenacity going after offensive boards makes her special. She’s very technically sound—some would even say robotic—and always moving, whether that’s cutting, setting off-ball screens, or posting up smaller guards who switch onto her. “She understands where her gifts are,” Reeve says, “and she’s smart.” But there are still a few marks against her in her campaign for the rookie crown.

Nine out of the past 11 ROY awards have gone to no. 1 draft picks, and not since Temeka Johnson’s 2005 breakout year has a player drafted after no. 5 earned the award. The Wings’ Ogunbowale, her closest competitor, was selected right before her at no. 5, and the Dallas point guard has more than made her mark on the league offensively this season. Ogunbowale’s 19.1 points per game is the only rookie average that tops Collier’s (13.1), and she finished in the top three in scoring behind Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. Ogunbowale scored 30 or more points five times—no other rookie put up that many points in a single game this year.

For avid women’s basketball fans, though, the competition between Ogunbowale and Collier isn’t anything new. Remember the Shot? No, not Michael Jordan’s game-winner over the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989, but the one Ogunbowale hit over Collier when Notre Dame played UConn in the 2018 Final Four. They faced off earlier this year, too, when Ogunbowale’s 23-point performance knocked the Huskies out of national championship contention for the second year in a row.

But Collier says she’s not sweating going up against her rival one more time. She did add “All-Star” to her résumé this year, after all, taking over A’ja Wilson’s spot after the Aces star injured her ankle a week before the contest. Even if that hadn’t happened, Lynx center Sylvia Fowles was on record saying that if Collier didn’t make the team, she would’ve given up her roster spot for her. “Everything we throw at her, she steps up to the challenges, and she goes out there and tries to get it done the best way possible,” Fowles says. “Coming in this league you have a lot of forces pulling you. People telling you, ‘You should do this, you can do that or this can be done better.’ You have to know what you stand for and why you’re here. And that’s just being Napheesa.”

Seimone Augustus echoed that high praise. “She’s been everything that this team has needed,” the 14-year vet says. “Normally they hit the ‘rookie wall’ about this time, and Phee looks like she’s hitting another level. And that’s very rare with rookies, especially with the change of the game, the speed, the flow. She’s just shown great maturity as far as being a pro and adapting to everything.”

To think, only five months ago Collier was in Tampa competing in the Final Four. Five days after UConn’s 81-76 loss to Notre Dame, she was at Nike’s New York headquarters on draft day holding up her brand-new Minnesota jersey and smiling for photos with WNBA COO Christin Hedgpeth. Four weeks after that, she reported to the first day of training camp in Minneapolis. Less than a month later, she started in her first WNBA game against the Sky and dropped 27 points.

The full West African proverb, including the last portion that doesn’t live on Collier’s shoes, is “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Collier seems poised to do just that, and she has plenty of goals along the way. First is to win Rookie of the Year, but there’s much more.

On draft night, each incoming rookie was asked to write down their WNBA dream on a league banner. Despite the fact that Collier’s immediate plan was to win ROY, she wrote “To win a WNBA championship.” Now she’s done all she can in the Rookie of the Year race. And with playoffs starting Wednesday, she’s looking to help lead her team past the defending champion Storm—and get one step closer to making that dream a reality.

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