Cheryl Reeve loads up on young talent.
The dynastic Minnesota Lynx found themselves in unfamiliar territory in 2018. Minnesota finished just two games over .500 and were quickly dispatched in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs. That’s not the ending the team with six conference titles and four WNBA championships since 2011 is used to.
2018 was a year of change for both the Lynx and the WNBA. Lindsay Whalen was lost to retirement. Maya Moore announced she was taking this season off. Rebekkah Brunson is dealing with potentially career-threatening concussion symptoms. If the need for youth and depth wasn’t already clear after last season, it was more than apparent entering the draft.
The Lynx’s needs were numerous. Brunson and Moore were their second and third-leading rebounders a season ago. Only Las Vegas took fewer three-pointers than Minnesota, who also finished eighth in three-point efficiency.
You don’t replace core pieces like Moore, Brunson or Whalen with one selection. It sometimes takes many players. With five total draft picks on Wednesday night, the Lynx were going to do all that they could to change their fortunes for 2019.
Making a bad choice with the sixth overall pick in this draft was going to be difficult. The Lynx had too many needs and this draft was teeming with talent. Guard help would have been great but four of the first five picks off the board were guards. A front court or wing player would also have made good selections.
The Lynx were thrilled to see UConn’s Napheesa Collier available. At 6’2”, Collier brings size and rebounding to either forward spot. Watching her play and her ability to be in the right place and make the right play jumps out. There’s no debate whether she’s a small forward or power forward; she’s a basketball player.
Her new coach, Cheryl Reeve, said after the selection that Collier was a Swiss Army knife on the basketball court, highlighting her ability to do everything from score efficiently, deflect passes and rebound.
Reeve previously coached Collier in 2018 for Team USA during FIBA’s World Cup. “My experience with her at USA basketball gave me a really good look into who she is and what she’s capable of,” said Reeve.
The summer of 2018 allowed Collier to get a taste of Reeve as a coach. Reeve is a good coach who gets the most out of their players. She can be hard on her players at times but her players usually understand that she has their best interest in mind. Reeve will push Collier to be her best while understanding that she’s still learning.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can and soak everything in from the amazing players and the amazing coaches that I’m about to play for,” said Collier. ” I love this coaching staff and those players. I’m excited to get down there.”
If there is anything that Collier has proven other than a strong work ethic, it’s a reputation for coachability. Collier’s coaches pushed her as a Freshman with a poor defensive reputation to become the 2019 AAC Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY).
“I think it just shows that we have great coaches in that program and they just pushed me as far as I could go,” said Collier on Wednesday about her improvement. “It was something I did think that I was weak in so I tried to improve and dreams do come true getting the DPOY.”
Her coachability will help improve arguably her greatest weakness as a prospect: her shooting. Collier’s shooting track record in college is inconsistent but it’s something she’s focused on improving. She plans to spend the rest of the offseason refining her shooting mechanics to become more comfortable and consistent with her shot. This way, we hope to see more of the 43-percent 3-point shooter we saw in her Junior season than the 28-percent shooter we saw this year.
If there’s a weakness, it seems like Collier will do everything she can to turn it into a strength.
Collier, a four-year player for the Huskies, brings a proven track record of success to the Lynx. She played over 27 minutes per game at UConn, averaging 16 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on 61 percent shooting from the field. In her senior season, she posted averages of 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game on 61.2 percent shooting
These numbers become more impressive when you consider her sub-30-percent 3-point shooting as a senior. She shot over 60 percent from the field despite making just 15-of-53 3-point attempts her senior year. Her remarkable efficiency led Reeve to place her among the Breanna Stewarts and Maya Moores of the league.
The former Husky is aware she is joining one of the WNBA’s most successful franchises. That’s familiar. Collier’s UConn teams reached the Final Four in each of her four seasons, including a 2016 National Championship. By joining the Lynx, Collier hopes to continue her winning tradition.
“It means a lot and shows that, not that other teams don’t but, the level of expectation they have for their program,” said Collier about joining a team like the Lynx. “Obviously, I’m used to that at UConn so I’m just going to go in there and work as hard as I can and do everything I can for the team.”
Having played with Stewart, Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson, she’s used to playing with other great players. “It’s gonna be amazing. That’s been my dream since I started watching her, so to know that she’s on that team and a part of that team means a lot,” Collier said of eventually playing with Moore. She also gets to practice with her former Team USA teammate, Sylvia Fowles, who Collier says will push her to be her best every day.
Collier has the potential to fill some of the minutes left by Moore and Brunson. There is also ample opportunity for her to carry her rebounding prowess to the team on Day 1. She’ll have her ups and downs like every rookie but it seems that Collier and the Lynx are a good match.
Second round shooters
The Lynx were in dire need of shooting entering Wednesday night. While none of the shooters at the top of the draft fell to them, the Lynx were able to acquire two by night’s end.
Natisha Hiedeman was taken with the 18th-overall pick and flipped to Connecticut in exchange for Lexie Brown. This is a fantastic price for a player the Sun had little use for last season, with major upside entering her second year. Brown’s numbers weren’t great as a rookie, but it is a very small sample size — playing just 5.6 minutes per game as a rookie in Connecticut — but her decorated college career tells a different story.
Brown, a 5’9 guard out of Duke, was a two-time AP All-American who averaged 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game while hitting 38.5 percent of her 3-pointers in her collegiate career. Her prolific shooting was no small sample as she attempted 369 3-pointers and played an average of 34.3 minutes per game. The Sun just couldn’t figure out how to get her on the court, with Jasmine Thomas and Layshia Clarendon also at point guard.
Minnesota also selected Buffalo guard Cierra Dillard with the 20th-overall pick. Dillard’s rebounding was exceptional for her position, averaging over five per game in each of her final two seasons. It helps that her three-point stroke hovered above the 34 percent mark in that same time. She can also create her own shot, and will be an excellent fit in that locker room.
If the Lynx are lucky, they will have found a pair of steady-shooting guards who are capable of grabbing a few rebounds of their own, both also capable of running offenses. The Brown deal, in particular, was a low-risk and high-reward move that could make the team look very smart if she’s successful.
Shepard slides to 16
It’s a success anytime you can grab one of the best rebounders and most efficient players in the draft in the second round. That’s exactly what the Lynx did when Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard fell to 16th overall. Lingering concerns over her conditioning and position on the floor prevented her from being a first-round pick.
Here’s the thing. If you’re a coach and can’t figure out how to use a 6’4” player that averaged an efficient 16.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, then something is wrong. Put a player like Shepard on the floor and she will find ways to contribute.
Finding value, like Shepard, throughout the second round was a common theme of the night for the Lynx.
Adapting to an evolving game
The Lynx seemingly recognized their weaknesses after the 2018 season. In almost no time at all, new contenders stood where they once did. Teams were younger, deeper and bombarded them with three-pointers.
What did the Lynx do on Wednesday?
They, too, became younger. They became more versatile, focusing on players with size and high basketball IQs that play multiple positions. The Lynx were able to add shooting in the second round at an affordable cost.
If a great team doesn’t recognize a shift in the game, it can get left behind. The league caught up and surpassed the Lynx in 2018. While losing Whalen, Moore and possibly Brunson will hurt, the Lynx found ways to replenish their talent pool, and have counterpunched with their roster.
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