Right now Rachel Banham is in Florida preparing for the coronavirus-shortened 2020 WNBA season.
But she feels like she’s at home.
When the league kicks off its 22-game season later this month, it will mark the first time since 2006 the Lynx will not have Seimone Augustus, or Lindsay Whalen, or both, in their backcourt.
For Banham — who grew up in Minnesota watching both of those future Hall of Famers play — that means a big opportunity at a crucial point in her career.
“It’s huge,” Banham said by phone from Bradenton, Fla. “The last four years have been tough, not being able to get consistent minutes. It’s good to come here knowing the opportunity is there. Now I have to take advantage of it.”
The hope is Banham will be able to pen another chapter in a feel-good story about one of the best basketball players in state history. Acquired in a sign-and-trade with Connecticut during the offseason, Banham is back.
She became a starter at Lakeville North in the eighth grade. She left the University of Minnesota as the Gophers’ all-time leading scorer with a list of records as long as some of her trademark three-pointers.
She was the fourth overall pick by Connecticut in the 2016 draft, and promptly found herself struggling for minutes playing behind Courtney Williams and Jasmine Thomas. In four years with the Sun, Banham appeared in 107 games with five starts, averaging just over 11 minutes per game.
Banham had always operated with the ball in her hands in high school and with the Gophers. Coming off the bench for Connecticut, she was asked to become more of a catch-and-shoot player. She worked on that, hard. She got better at it. But it’s not her strength.
“I’ve always been a better shooter off the dribble,” Banham said. “It’s better for the rebound, too. I just like it, it feels right. It makes me a better player, for sure. Not just to shoot, but to create, to pass.”
She will get that chance now. For Banham, opportunity could be, quite literally, in her hands.
How she fits in
The guard situation with the Lynx is fluid. The only true point guard on the roster is rookie Crystal Dangerfield. Coach Cheryl Reeve sees a shared situation at both guard positions. The early feeling is that veteran Shenise Johnson, finally healthy after years of battling knee issues, could get significant minutes at one spot.
Both Lexie Brown and Banham are combo guards who are able to initiate offense, shoot and score off the dribble. Reeve is interested in putting the ball back in Banham’s hands and seeing what happens.
“What you see so much of, as players go through their first four, five years, unless they’re a Maya Moore, that elite-level talent, sometimes it takes a little bit,” Reeve said. “Napheesa Collier? Her success, early, is rare. It takes time. But a lot of players, by their fourth or fifth season, are ready to take the next step. I think Rachel is mentally ready. She has prepared herself. She believes in the Minnesota Lynx. She wanted to be here. A lot of things are converging, and that indicates a good chance of success.”
Banham is thrilled to be playing for the team she grew up rooting for. But she knows that can bring pressure, too.
“There is always pressure. When I got into the league, in Connecticut, I felt pressure to impress,” she said. “Here, at home, everyone is expecting big things. I feel I can handle that well. I take it as motivation. I want to make Minnesota happy. I want to be able to give back, because the state has always supported me.”
So far, so good. After months of waiting, Banham and her teammates are back on the court. And that first game is coming quickly.
“I can’t wait to actually play in this uniform,” Banham said. “To play my first game for Cheryl, to play with Syl [Fowles]. I’m looking forward to that moment. … This is what I wanted my whole life, to be back, playing in a Lynx jersey.”