Midway through their second WNBA season, Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale are still the class of the 2019 draft.
Collier, taken by the Lynx with the sixth pick before last season, is the reigning rookie of the year. In a first year marked by steady play, she led the league in minutes for the Lynx who, perhaps surprisingly, made the playoffs for a ninth straight season.
After a relatively slow start this season, Collier has kicked it into a new gear of late, with center Sylvia Fowles out becauser of a calf injury. Collier has 47 points on 16-for-27 shooting with 27 rebounds and six assists in the past two games to lift the Lynx to 7-3, tying them for third in the WNBA.
Ogunbowale was taken by Dallas fifth overall last year, right before Collier. She led all rookies in scoring as a volume shooter — and scorer — on a team that needed every one of her points. This year she leads the league in scoring (21.5). In her past two games, she is 21-for-33 overall, 10 of 13 on three-pointers, for 55 points.
The Lynx and Wings meet for the first time this season Wednesday at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The Wings are 4-7 after Ogunbowale hit 13 of 19 shots and scored 33 points against Phoenix to help her team break a three-game losing streak.
“Arike is certainly the flash,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “So much speed and explosiveness. Phee is more smooth, change of pace. They’re both effective, but in different ways. They were the cream of the rookie crop last year. This year some other players from that group are emerging. But those two have continued to shine.”
Both players have had to do more because of injuries. The Lynx lost Karima Christmas-Kelly for the season because of an Achilles injury. Fowles has battled a sore calf. Both Shenise Johnson and Rachel Banham have missed time because of hamstring issues. Dallas will play Wednesday without guard Moriah Jefferson and rookie Satou Sabally.
Collier’s play last week as the Lynx went 2-1 earned her Western Conference player of the week honors. By her own admission she was pressing early. In a one-on-one conversation, coach Cheryl Reeve told her to play more freely.
“I took it to heart,” Collier said. “I felt stressed during the games. I wasn’t playing freely, I was worrying about other things. When she said that it kinda kicked me into gear to let loose and play basketball the way I know how to play basketball. Not overthink things.”
Ogunbowale has continued to score, but has gotten more efficient as the season has progressed. Last season she averaged 19.1 points, shooting 38.8%. This year: 21.5 points on 44.1% shooting.
Katie Lou Samuelson played with Collier at Connecticut. She was taken by Chicago with the fourth overall pick last season. Now she’s with Dallas, playing with Ogunbowale.
“For us, Arike just does everything she needs to do,” Samuelson said. “Coming off last season, she’s getting a lot more attention defensively. Last year she kind of came out guns firing and played awesome. But this year she’s had to work every single game. ... Phee is really the kind of player who, even at UConn, was so consistent from Day 1. She knows what she can do, what she wants to do on the court against anyone.”
Collier has increased her scoring from 13.1 to 14.9 from last year to this year, her rebounds from 6.6 to 9.0 and her assists from 2.6 to 3.3. She is the Lynx’s only healthy captain and has tried hard to become more vocal.
To Reeve, Collier’s effectiveness as a captain is easy to see. She works harder than anyone else — and she’s humble. Against New York on Saturday, after hitting a three-pointer, Collier did a little shoulder shimmy as she ran down the court.
“That was the must humble shimmy in the history of sports,” Reeve said. “That’s just the epitome of Phee. Humility goes a long way, and her tremendous work ethic.”