Neither player can remember how it started. It just sort of became a habit.
When the Lynx are on the road, Napheesa Collier and Seimone Augustus will often dine together. Collier, a 22-year-old rookie, Augustus, a 14-year WNBA veteran who at age 35 is old enough to be Collier’s … older sister.
A mentor and her mentee. Teacher and student. Regular Q&A sessions where Collier asks most of the questions and Augustus doles out knowledge like she hands out assists.
“I’ve said it from the beginning, Seimone is someone you can go to any time you have questions,” Collier said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing. I just love those conversations with her.”
The relationship has deepened as the season progressed.
From the start Augustus has seen the way Collier works. Never late, always early. The maturity that has enabled Collier to sidestep the traditional rookie wall. The thirst to improve. How Collier was able to shuffle between the small and big forward positions with surprising alacrity.
Much of the talk as the regular season winds down is who will win the league’s rookie of the year award. To Augustus — really, to everyone associated with the Lynx, who have been referring to Collier as "ROY" for weeks now — this is a moot point. In a two-horse race that includes Dallas guard Arike Ogunbowale, the Lynx are betting on Collier.
Augustus, who has battled a sore right knee all season, who has already announced that 2020 will be her final WNBA season, who has been the face of this franchise since she was the league’s ROY back in 2006, has other goals in mind.
Every day, every trip, every meal, she is grooming Collier to take over.
“I say, ‘You’re going to be the ROY,’ ” Augustus said. “ ‘That’s just the way it’s going to be. From there we’ll have expectations for you to carry this team on. Take this team, this franchise, everything. I’m passing you the torch. In a year and a half it’s going to be you.’
“I’m grooming her to take over the team.”
The two-person race
First things first.
In 12 of the past 15 seasons the leading rookie scorer has been the rookie of the year. This season Ogunbowale (17.7) is the top rookie scorer.
But Collier is stuffing the boxscore every night. She is third in the league in minutes played (32.9), fifth in steals (1.9), 16th in rebounds (6.4). Among league forwards she is ninth in assists (2.5).
These are league standings, not just rookie standings.
And while her numbers have crescendoed of late — she has averaged 20.3 points, 2.0 blocks and 2.7 steals during Minnesota’s three-game winning streak, shooting nearly 58% overall and making five of seven three-point attempts — Collier has been remarkably steady through the season.
“It’s Collier,” Washington coach Mike Thibault said regarding the top rookie race. “Dallas might not be where they are without Ogunbowale, but Collier has had the most impact from Day 1. And she has stayed consistent. She plays like a veteran. I don’t even think it’s close.”
Tuesday’s victory over Chicago was a classic Collier game. She scored 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting, had seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.
In the decisive fourth quarter she hit a three-pointer that gave the Lynx a one-point lead with 8:12 left, raced down alone on a fast break for a block on former UConn teammate Katie Lou Samuelson.
Then, she intercepted Stefanie Dolson’s pass to Courtney Vandersloot, was fouled, and hit two free throws to put Minnesota up by seven with 2:41 left.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said it was the kind of winning play she saw for years out of Rebekkah Brunson.
After the game, when asked about Collier, Sky coach James Wade said, simply: “She’s got my vote.”
From the beginning
Collier has always had quiet confidence in the face of just about anything.
Where does this come from? Home in Missouri, it turns out, from parents Gamal and Sarah Collier. Gamal is from Sierra Leone, the son of Gershon Collier, who, as a diplomat, helped gain his African country’s independence from Great Britain in 1961; he was his country’s ambassador to the United Nations.
A picture of him and John F. Kennedy hangs in the Collier home. Mother Sarah grew up in a Missouri town.
Two cultures, one message: Sports is a privilege, not a right, and it doesn’t define you. The next time an official changes his mind will be the first, so don’t complain. You can’t pass the ball to yourself; if you’re busy showing off for yourself, you’re disrespecting your teammates. If you’re competing against someone, never let them know what you’re thinking.
Never get too stuck on yourself.
“When she comes home she still has to do the dishes and take out the trash,” Gamal joked.
But seriously: “The way we always judged our kids wasn’t by the score, it was by the effort,” he said.
Don’t misunderstand. Gamal was thrilled when Collier went to the Lynx in the draft and has been thrilled by his daughter’s first season. “I pinch myself every day,” he said. “I keep thinking I’m dreaming.”
Especially with the way Collier has handled herself.
Collier remembers a game during middle school when she got really frustrated and showed it.
That’s what they want to see, her dad said. But don’t let them.
“That really hit home with me,” Collier said. “I never want my opponent to get the satisfaction of seeing me get mad. And that just stayed with me.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma saw it for four years, and he’s seeing it in Collier as a WNBA rookie.
“A lot of kids are fixated on scoring,” Auriemma said. “But there is no facet of the game she doesn’t excel in. It’s not in-your-face stuff. But it’s a tough rebound, a pass, a blocked shot out of nowhere. Every game, you see it. Her effort never changes. She never feels defeated. It’s uncanny that she keeps her intensity level so high. She knows, eventually, the game will turn for her.”
To Collier, this was a lesson learned as a college freshman — season of ups and downs, she remembers.
“It hits you hard, coming from high school and playing at such an elite school,” she said. “I remember that feeling, and how I hated it. So, coming into the league, I knew it would be similar to my freshman year, and I didn’t want to have that same feeling. I tried to approach each game like, ‘I’m supposed to be here.’ ”
And it will only get better.
“She’s just beginning to assert herself,” Auriemma said. “In the coming years you’re going to see one of the most dominant players in the league. This is the worst she’s going to be. You’re looking at a multi-Olympian, a multi-All-Star.”
For starters, how about rookie of the year?
Prompted, Collier admitted she felt she deserved it. “There are a lot of great candidates, and they excel in one or two categories,” she said. “But I think I do a lot in a lot of different categories. I think I do the most overall. I think that’s why I deserve it.”
But that would be just the start.
Augustus knows. She has watched Collier work, has noticed how people are naturally drawn to her. The face of the franchise since 2006 — Augustus was here before the Lynx got good, and was a part of four WNBA championship teams — she knows a winner when she sees one.
“The perfect successor,” Augustus said. “She’s the right person to carry the team. She has the mentality, the competitiveness, the maturity. She has it all. This is what we talk about. She’s picking my brain, and I’m passing on everything I know.”
Collier just soaks it all in.
“It means a lot,” Collier said. “I want her to stay here forever — I do — but it feels great to know she’s saying that. That she thinks I could be that person. But I’m going to try to get her to stick around a little longer.”