Quiet confidence has always been Napheesa Collier’s thing.
It was that way at the University of Connecticut, where she spoke softly but always made the big shot.
Steady, strong, consistent … muted.
“She was a quiet kid on the court,’’ Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “But her game was loud.’’
As Collier made her way through her WNBA rookie of the year season for the Lynx in 2019, her teammates would always tease her about her lack of trash-talking skills. In one game against Indiana, the Fever’s Betnijah Laney was yapping at Collier up and down the court. Finally Collier turned to her, smiled and gave her the thumbs up.
Do it, don’t say it.
“I think that, if you know you’re good, you don’t have to be arrogant,’’ Collier said last week, as the Lynx were preparing for Sunday’s 2020 opener against Connecticut, the first of an abbreviated 22-game schedule to be played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. “But once on the court, you have to have a confidence and arrogance about it to know you can’t be stopped.’’
This is all fine. One of the traits the Lynx love about Collier is how hard she works and how hard it can be for her to accept accolades. At her rookie of the year news conference, she accepted the trophy from WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, spoke for just 77 seconds and started walking off the stage, not once considering the media might want to ask her some questions.
Last week, when she was asked by Engelbert to take part in a podcast, Collier was like: Why me?
With her second season about to start, Collier has done everything she can to be ready. A 6-1 forward who moved from power forward in college to more of a wing player with the Lynx, she spent the spring in a gym near her Missouri home working on her three-point shot, her ballhandling skills, trying to become more of a complete offensive package.
‘Napheesa is the Lynx’
And now the Lynx want more. Coach Cheryl Reeve made her one of three captains, along with Sylvia Fowles and Karima Christmas-Kelly. It was both a reward and an enticement. Reeve wants Collier to do more than walk the walk. She wants her to talk, to lead a young team still in transition. Quiet confidence is fine, but Reeve wants more noise.
Fowles put it more bluntly: “Honestly, when you think about what we’re doing now, with this new Minnesota Lynx team, Napheesa is the Lynx. This is her team. She probably didn’t sign up for it, but it’s a reality. It’s a fact.’’
What does she think about that?
“I’m trying,’’ Collier said.
Lynx rookie guard Crystal Dangerfield played three seasons with Collier at Connecticut and calls her the silent assassin. But when asked to recall Collier’s most impressive games, Dangerfield paused.
It isn’t the big games she remembers. It’s the utter lack of bad ones.
“She never had a bad day,’’ Dangerfield said. “Not in practice, not in games. Every day she went to work.’’
It was that way last year, too. The sixth pick in the draft kept her head down — after all, Fowles and Seimone Augustus were there to lead — and went to work.
An up-and-down training camp and preseason were forgotten when she scored 27 points in an opening-night victory over Chicago. In 34 games she scored in double figures 25 times, including the final 15 games. She averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds and shot 49% from the field and 36.1% on three-pointers.
In a playoff game loss at Seattle, Collier showed a glimpse of the future, trying to carry the team by scoring nine of her 19 points in the third quarter as the Lynx tried to rally from a 12-point deficit.
She scored on a put-back, on a drive, hit pull-up jumpers. She rebounded the ball, blocked a shot.
Reeve said it was about a third of the way through the season that she realized she just couldn’t take Collier off the court.
“We found ourselves just needing her,’’ Reeve said. “Because of the way she impacted the game. Honestly, we didn’t think we had drafted a player who would become a part of our big three immediately.’’
Collier led the league in minutes played. She may well do the same this season. Collier is the starting small forward, but she’s also the backup to power forward Damiris Dantas and will play there in smaller lineups that include Christmas-Kelly at the three. What does Reeve want? More. People know Collier now, and will try to slow her down. So she’s worked hard with Collier on the pick-and-roll, on her outside shot.
“I take a lot of pride in being consistent,’’ Collier said. “That is my game. You work hard, especially on defense, it converts to offense.’’
Reeve may disagree with Fowles on whose team this is right now. Fowles has championship cred, Olympic golds, regular-season and playoff MVP awards. But she gets Fowles’ point.
“As nice as she is, you might wonder, ‘Can she?’ ” Reeve said. “But she’s not afraid. It’s still Syl’s team, but the transition is coming, for sure.’’
She’s trying. “This is different than what I’m used to,’’ Collier said. “But I’m trying to adapt my leadership skills to do that.’’
Auriemma saw what Collier was able to do last year in Maya Moore’s absence. “But she didn’t have to fill the leadership part of it, because Syl and Seimone was there,’’ he said. “Now she’s smart enough to see what’s ahead.’’
No reason to be quiet about that.
“As a captain I feel a responsibility to help lead the team,’’ Collier said. “This is where I want to spend the rest of my career.’’