Will the “odd” year success continue for Minnesota in 2019?
2011. 2013. 2015. 2017.
Take a quick glance inside Target Center in Minneapolis and you’ll see four banners waving in the rafters, showing the dominance of the Minnesota Lynx throughout much of the decade, especially in the odd years. Add in conference championships in 2012 and 2016 and you see what has become the WNBA’s dynasty in a city that hasn’t won a professional championship on the men’s side since 1991. With Lindsay Whalen retired and across town coaching the Golden Gophers and Maya Moore taking the year off, this year’s roster looks much different than the ones that have competed for championships through the 2010s. In 2019, do they have what it takes to compete?
“We knew that going into it (this season) that we had so many new faces, new players,” Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said when asked what has jumped out at her since the start of camp. “We also want to adjust how we are doing some things. Things that worked for eight years but now with a different group we added some new things for even the veterans to have to get a hold of.”
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Training camp started with offense, offense and more offense as Reeve and Co. installed a new scheme without focusing on the defense for the first two days of training camp. On May 7, the team had two sessions. The morning was focused around defense while the evening session continued to focus the Lynx on the new style of basketball that was to come. Finally, on May 8, the practice players were there to compete against the team, allowing Minnesota to put it all together for the first time.
“We are just trying to learn,” Reeve said of the opening week of training camp. “They are trying to learn what we want as coaches and we are trying to learn about them so we can put them in the best positions that we possibly can.”
The revamped roster includes veterans Karima Christmas-Kelly and Odyssey Sims, players that Minnesota is familiar with as opponents but not so much as teammates. Christmas-Kelly was signed by the Lynx on Feb. 1, joining the team after eight seasons with Dallas, Indiana and Washington. She has played in 235 career games and won a championship with Indiana in 2012 after the Fever defeated the Lynx three games to one.
“I’ve been welcomed with open arms and I really appreciate the ‘family’ feeling I got from the beginning of this process,” Christmas-Kelly said. I’m both thankful and hungry for the opportunity to play in a Minnesota Lynx jersey.”
Reeve had nothing but good things to say about Christmas-Kelly through the first week of training camp. Christmas-Kelly scored five points in the preseason win, making both of her shots. The Lynx will look to slowly increase her minutes throughout the beginning of the season as she comes back from a knee injury that sidelined her after just seven games in 2018.
“She’s exactly like we thought,” Reeve said. “She’s such a great leader, great communicator. She’s the voice that I hear a lot. She may be new to the Lynx way of doing things but she’s able to pick it up and shares the knowledge that she has.”
Sims, on the other hand, has a little history with the Lynx and including most famously with the recently retired Whalen. The two shared extremely similar playing styles, leading to tense moments in games between the Sparks and Lynx that are always worth the price of admission. Sims was traded from the Los Angeles to Minnesota on April 22 in exchange for guard Alexis Jones.
“I told Odyssey in the locker room, I had some awfully bad dreams trying to figure out how to guard her in a high ball screen,” Reeve said after the team’s preseason win over the Mystics on May 10. “So, it was really fun to watch her doing it for us, and against someone else. Now I understand why we couldn’t. She’s just so explosive. You know, her ability to get to a small space quickly even when they were trying to get her to get away from the screen, icing it, she was just really persistent. And obviously was efficient.”
Along with Christmas-Kelly and Sims, a core group of last year’s players has returned to begin righting the ship after last year’s 18-16 regular season record. That core is led by Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles, along with Rebekkah Brunson, who hopes to return from an injury that has sidelined her for much of the offseason. Augustus enters year No. 14 as the oldest healthy player on the roster, hoping to lead this younger group alongside Fowles who enters year 12 in the league. Fowles averaged 17.7 points per game last year to go along with a career-high 11.9 rebounds per game.
The player on the Lynx roster with the most to gain from the absence of Maya Moore is Danielle Robinson. Robinson was named a captain this offseason and stayed in town for many of the winter months, continuing to craft her game as she enters year No. 8 of her career. Reeve will give Robinson the first chance to run the point guard position and run the new offense her and the coaching staff have installed. Robinson and Sims will both have new roles to adapt to moving forward as they learn to play together and try to make up the void left by Moore.
Cecilia Zandalasini is currently playing basketball overseas and won’t take one of the limited 12 roster spots to begin the season. The team is expected to have Zandalasini back in early July once her international season is completed. Zandalasini shot an impressive 38.3 percent from beyond the arc in 2018 and the Lynx will miss her outside shot to begin the 2019 season. Temi Fagbenle will also not start the season on the Lynx roster as she is also playing overseas. Fagbenle has had an impressive offseason, being named the BLK regular season Most Valuable Player back in April. Playing for CCC Polkowice, Fagbenle averaged 14.4 points per game along with seven rebounds per game. Last year, Fagbenle won the BLK Finals MVP and has a chance to repeat with CCC Polkowice being favorites heading into the playoffs.
Erlana Larkins re-signed with Minnesota in the offseason after playing 13 games for the team in 2018. While Larkins has shown flashes of brilliance, she will be fighting hard for one of the last remaining spots on the roster. In the May 10 preseason game vs. the Mystics, Larkins played just 4:37, shooting one shot and scoring zero points.
Napheesa Collier: The sixth overall pick in the 2019 WNBA draft, Collier comes from the University of Connecticut where winning is a habit and a way of life. The 6’2 forward averaged a double-double in her senior season, becoming one of five Connecticut players to finish her career with over 2000 points and 1000 rebounds. Collier and the Huskies advanced to the Final Four all four seasons she was there, winning the National Championship in 2016.
“She’s very active,” Reeve said. “On offense, she’s going to know what play to make and where to be. On defense, she’s going to be in help position and she is going to rotate. She’s just that kind of player who is going to be involved in all possessions. She’s been a sponge and a great teammate.”
The Lynx have recently looked at making Collier a small forward, something they could really use to begin the season. Collier’s size is a little small for a WNBA power forward and the minutes will be available for Collier to make a quick impact for Minnesota.
“Even if I’m not scoring, going in for a rebound or getting tips or after loose balls, because I am uncomfortable in the position so I want to focus on working hard on things I can control, then the other things like shooting the ball or attacking from the perimeter will come later once I get more games, more practices, more comfortable with that,” said Collier.
Lexie Brown: The 5’9 guard from Duke entering her second season in the league was traded on draft night this year in exchange for Natisha Hiedeman who the Lynx selected 18th overall in this year’s draft. Brown was picked ninth overall by Connecticut in the 2018 WNBA draft and is known for having great defense and the ability to shoot from the outside.
“In the first three days or so, Lexie’s probably been the player who has been the most comfortable,” Reeve said. “She’s known as a point guard and when you look at her you know she has the ability to play the one or the two. She’s gravitated more towards the shooting guard position and that’s worked out well for her and it’s worked out well for us.”
Damiris Dantas: The Lynx welcome back Dantas to Minneapolis after drafting her originally back in 2012 with the No. 12 overall pick. In her first stint with Minnesota, she played in 46 games, starting 27 of them and averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. On July 27, 2015, she was traded to Atlanta as part of a three-team trade that brought Sylvia Fowles to Minnesota from Chicago. Dantas had her 2018 season cut short after a right ankle injury that kept her out for the last 14 games of the season for the Dream.
“In her time previously, Damiris showed how valuable she is with her versatility to play both post positions and ability to both score on the block and stretch the defense with her shooting,” Reeve said. “We are excited to have her back.”
Jessica Shepard: Three days after losing the 2019 national championship, Shepard was selected by the Lynx with the No. 16 pick in the draft. Shepard was one of five Notre Dame players to be drafted and scored 16.7 points per game to go along with 10.3 rebounds a game in her senior season. The Irish won the 2018 National Championship, with Shepard being a key contributor to the success that Notre Dame had. Shepard played 22 minutes in the May 10 preseason win over the Mystics, scoring ten points on four-of-nine from the floor.
“I don’t want to say she’s surprised us because it’s been documented that I like Jess a lot,” Reeve said. “Sometimes it’s hard to do what you did for your college team and insert yourself into a pro squad but everything she has done in college she is doing for us. She plays really hard. She’s got a great understanding of the game. Overall I think she is well positioned to be a part of our team but it’s still early.”
Kelsey Griffin: Maybe the most interesting signing of the offseason for Minnesota is the one of former University of Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin. Griffin was drafted No. 3 by the Lynx in 2010 before being traded on draft night. Griffin has not played in the WNBA in five years and has most recently been playing in Australia’s WNBL. Last year, Griffin averaged 19.7 per game to lead the league and also won the regular season and finals Most Valuable Player.
Jillian Alleyne: On Feb. 22, 2019, the Lynx signed forward Jillian Alleyne, the 6-3 forward from Fontana, California. Originally drafted No. 20 overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft, Alleyne’s college career was cut short by an ACL injury that also sidelined her for the entire 2016 season. Alleyne signed a training camp contract last season with the Lynx before being waived on May 15. Alleyne scored five points in the Lynx preseason win on May 10.
Shao Ting: Joining New York Liberty’s Han Xu, Shao Ting is the only other player from the Chinese Basketball Association that is in the WNBA right now. Shao played for Beijing Shougang and has familiarity with Fowles who has also played for the same team in China. Shao was in training camp with the Minnesota Lynx in 2017 before eventually being cut before the season.
Kenisha Bell: Bell became the eighth player from the University of Minnesota who was drafted to the WNBA when she was selected by the Lynx with the No. 30 pick this year. Living in Minneapolis, Bell is familiar of the list she now occupies, joining Rachel Banham and Carlie Wagner alongside other Gophers whose name has been called on draft night. Bell averaged 19.1 points per game this season for Whalen and the Golden Gophers while also tying her own school record for free throw attempts in a season (255). Coach Whalen will get a good look at Bell when she comes to cheer on the Lynx with the new season tickets that she recently purchased.
With just 12 spots available on the opening night roster, many changes still need to occur for Reeve before the May 25 game vs. Chicago. In that game, the Lynx will welcome back new Sky head coach James Wade after his two years as an assistant for Reeve. The lower bowl of Target Center will be rocking that night, with thousands of people expected to fill the stands. The new season brings hope, promise, and the foundation of a championship.
At the end of the season, will the Lynx be able to say they claimed every odd year championship this decade? Only time will tell.
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