Napheesa Collier is your 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year. Though her earning the honor might come as a bit of a surprise to a casual observer who saw that she was drafted at No. 6 in the 2019 draft, nobody inside the Lynx organization is surprised at all.
Collier was an immediate cultural and on-court fit with the Lynx. That’s why they were so excited to get her when they did. As soon as she stepped into the building, her teammates and coaches saw something in her. While she didn’t have the best training camp scoring the ball, after she stepped out in her first game in the league and dropped 27 points against the Chicago Sky, Collier never looked back.
Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was excited that Collier fell to the Lynx after spending time with her at USA Basketball. Reeve said that the only reason she thinks Collier was available is that WNBA teams thought that she would have to make the switch from playing power forward to playing small forward at the next level and there were varying degrees of confidence in her ability to make that switch. Reeve had that confidence, and it paid off.
“You think that you’ve got a good player, you just don’t know how quickly that player would adjust to playing professional basketball,” said Reeve. “It’s a huge jump from college to WNBA. I would say we were cautiously optimistic. We were sure that we had a good player for years to come, we just weren’t aware of maybe how quickly she would grab ahold of the WNBA and be successful.”
Collier’s ability to come into the league and, as Reeve said, grab hold of the WNBA, is a testament to her work ethic and her commitment to getting better every single day. It sounds like an obvious thing, but for a rookie having that approach is not a given. However, it’s a trait that many of the best players across professional sports display.
“You can’t find a more perfect cultural fit into the way we like to do things. Incredibly selfless, with a tremendous work ethic, anything that we asked of her she immediately did,” said Reeve. “You think it’s simple but those are things that are hard to find in players, especially younger players. It takes them a while to figure it out. At no point in time did Napheesa think that she was better than anybody else, she just went to work every day and said, ‘My team needs me.’”
Reeve sees a unique blend of humility and confidence in the newly-anointed Rookie of the Year. Collier deeply believes that she can be the best and understands the work it takes to get there, but she doesn’t feel like anything will be given to her. Collier wanted to win this award and she believed she deserved it, but she knew she had to fight for it.
“I don’t think there was one moment where I thought, this could be a possibility. I know who I am as a player and I knew that if I played my best game then I had a real chance to win Rookie of the Year,” she said. “I tried to stay as aggressive as I could, and I knew if I did that I could have a good chance of winning.”
Collier has always been a do-it-all player. She knows that to be her best self she has to impact the game at every point she touches it—to win every possession, every loose ball, every rebound. Basketball is a game that demands its best players excel in many areas, and Collier understands that better than most.
“I came in with the attitude of, ‘I’m just going to do everything that I can, do whatever I can to help the team,’ and let the chips fall where they did,” said Collier. “Fortunately, I got the opportunity to play a lot of minutes, play with amazing players and try to make a difference on the team.”
In her rookie season, Collier led the entire league in minutes played. Her need to switch positions that many teams saw as a weakness coming into the draft ended up being one of her greatest strengths. She turned positional uncertainty into positional flexibility and became one of the most versatile players in the league as a result.
Next to Collier this entire season was Seimone Augustus. While Augustus spent the majority of the season on the sidelines due to knee injury, she was a vocal presence from the bench, especially with the younger players.
“I feel like a coach or something. It feels good to see someone who I felt like I mentored a lot this year, just staying in her ear, giving her a confidence boost that she needed or just directing her in the way that she needed to go, to continue to be successful,” Augustus said. “You feel proud—a super proud moment to see your teammate do great things.”
For Augustus, the most impressive part of Collier’s season is the way the rookie managed to continue playing within herself while still pushing herself to be the best possible version of herself possible. When the team needed more from her, Collier stepped up, but she did it by doing what she did to the maximum, not by trying to become a player that she wasn’t.
“She just kind of played her game and it fit perfectly into what we needed,” said Augustus. “It was great to see that growth, to see how she excelled and figured out how to use her body, her length, and as the season went on that was great to see.”
So, what is next for the young forward? One thing is clear, Collier sits at the center of the Lynx’s plan for the franchise going forward. You can’t always expect to get a star at No. 6, but it’s clear that that’s what Collier is destined for—at least in Augustus’ eyes. Collier understands the importance of Augustus seeing her as the future of the franchise.
“Getting that kind of recognition from Seimone means a lot to me,” said Collier. “She’s an amazing player, she’s going to go in the Hall of Fame, she’s been here since the beginning of her career and knowing that she thinks that of me, it means the world to me. I definitely don’t want to let her down, and I’ll do everything I can to take the torch from her.”
For Collier, that’s means continuing to do what she always has done. She will enter the offseason with a plan to improve on every area of her game. With a full season of WNBA play under her belt, Collier will come into year two better prepared than ever to lead Minnesota back to greatness. Rookie of the Year is just the beginning.
“It is absolutely an impressive group with the people who have won Rookie of the Year,” Collier said. “Many of them if not all of them have gone on to have great careers and do things that are amazing for this league, so I definitely want to do the same thing. I want to use this and just try to set new goals for myself and try to reach those and work on my game each year making sure that I’m getting better, not staying the same. Just progressing as an athlete and a person in this league.”