There is a reason why Karima Christmas-Kelly is one of three Lynx captains this season despite having played just six games with the team.
She is a leader. Last year, when a second right knee injury in as many seasons ended her first season with the Lynx at six games, she still managed to find a way to lead. At every practice, during games, she stayed connected. She shared her veteran experience with a team transitioning its roster.
And all of that is good. But it wasn’t enough.
Christmas-Kelly has played 12 WNBA games in the past two years. She was just rounding into basketball shape, getting ready to practice, when the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of WNBA training camps and the start of the 2020 season.
Now, finally, in a “bubble’’ at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., the 2020 season is a less than week away. The Lynx start Sunday morning. And Christmas-Kelly can’t wait.
“It’s just me trying to come back and prove to myself that I can get back out there, work through what I’ve been working through the last few years,” she said. “Not giving up on what I believe, the game I love.’’
We will know shortly whether it was worth the wait. Christmas-Kelly was playing wing for the Dallas Wings in 2018 when, early in the season, an injury required microfracture surgery in her right knee, ending the season. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said half the league still tried to sign her in free agency in 2019, when she chose to sign a three-year deal with the Lynx.
But then last season was ended early, too. “It definitely was a huge blow, the second time around,’’ Christmas-Kelly said. “The first time I was like, ‘OK, I can get through this.’ And then you get back and now you have to do it all over again.’’
A healthy Christmas-Kelly would be a big addition, one the Lynx were looking for last season when they signed her to play small forward. If there is a silver lining to the injury, it’s this: Rookie Napheesa Collier was moved into the starting lineup as a result, and she responded with a Rookie of the Year season.
But in Christmas-Kelly the Lynx get a player who is versatile and active on defense, a good rebounder and someone who scored in double figures for three straight seasons before the injury in 2018. Reeve said she has seen that old Christmas-Kelly in practices.
“It’s good to see Rima playing the way she’s playing,’’ Reeve said. “At no point last year did we get to that. We were just trying to manage the injury.’’
So, now the question is how will Reeve play her? Collier — who led the league in minutes as a rookie — is still here and starts at the position. Reeve said Christmas-Kelly will back up Collier. But she also said fans will see the two of them on the court together, with Collier moving to power forward in smaller lineups. Reeve said Collier could very well lead the league in minutes this season and that Christmas-Kelly could play about 20 minutes a game.
Last season she was almost like an extra coach on the bench. Now Christmas-Kelly hopes to be a leader by example.
“I’m definitely back,’’ she said. “I’ve been full-go in every practice. I’m ready to be full-go the rest of the season.’’