Everything about Minnesota Lynx training camp screams “new.” So many new faces. So many rookies. So much uncertainty.
Lindsay Whalen retired, Maya Moore is taking a year off to recharge, and Rebekkah Brunson remains sidelined with post-concussion symptoms. That’s a lot of high-end change for any franchise. Besides those three likely Hall of Famers, the four-time WNBA champion Lynx opened camp with this week without Cecilia Zandalasini and Temi Fagbenle, who committed to their national teams (Italy and Great Britain, respectively) through an Olympic qualifying tournament in early July.
Ten new players, seven of them rookies, joined Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and the few remaining holdovers from last year’s one-and-done-in-postseason squad. So the first days of camp featured more instruction, more stops and starts, than any camp since Coach Cheryl Reeve arrived in 2010.
Reeve talked at length this week about a new era for the Lynx. The first evidence of that comes Friday night, when her team takes the Target Center floor for its exhibition opener against Washington. If you go, buy a program or print out a roster at home. You’ll need it.
“This is probably the most newness we’ve had since my first camp,” Reeve said. “We (used to be) a well-oiled machine. I could say something and people knew what I was talking about. This group has no clue. That’s the biggest difference.”
Change is hard for anyone, but especially a coach used to winning with a self-policing leadership group. Whalen, Moore, Brunson and Augustus knew what Reeve wanted (especially Whalen), and knew how to deliver it while keeping themselves and everyone else in line. A core like that doesn’t just parachute in every couple of years. Some franchises go generations without one. A certain NBA franchise that shares a practice facility with the Lynx still seeks its first.
Reeve could be tough on her core group because they could take it. She had little use for rookies (Moore a notable exception), or younger players that lacked grit and resilience. Reeve believes the WNBA is a veteran’s league, and that philosophy drove most of her personnel moves in her two years as general manager. Trading Alexis Jones, a promising young scorer who never defended well enough to suit Reeve, to Los Angeles for tough-as-a-rhino Odyssey Sims just before camp was the latest example.
But now Reeve needs to be a little more patient, a little more forgiving of mistakes that are bound to happen as players try to find their way. The game has changed. Teams shoot more 3-pointers now, and Reeve’s off-season moves targeted more scoring and better 3-point shooting. Last year the Lynx attempted the second-fewest 3-pointers in the league, nearly 300 fewer than WNBA champion Seattle. Relying on layups and midrange jumpers used to be a winning formula. Now, it’s a surefire way to get beat.
Reeve reinvented the Lynx once already on the fly, switching from a high-post passing offense with Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Janel McCarville to a low-post, pound-it-inside game when Fowles arrived in midseason 2015. Two more championships followed. This transition from the Core Four to the Next Four will require similar resourcefulness and a less volcanic touch.
At least three rookies are expected to make the final roster, which isn’t that unusual. But two — first-round pick Napheesa Collier from UConn, and second-rounder Jessica Shepard of Notre Dame — could see significant minutes. That’s never happened with a Reeve-coached Lynx team.
“A lot of people are worried about me,” Reeve said. “They’re worried I’m going to break out in hives and not make it through the season.
“I hope I can be an amoeba in whatever the team needs,” she continued. “Whatever year it is, whatever is asked for, whatever is needed, I hope I can be that. This calls for something different. So I’ll work really hard to make sure I’m teaching and bringing along the young ones. I did what that group was at that time. This is a different time in our franchise. I hope I can be that amoeba.”
Some things won’t change, like Reeve’s reliance on her point guard. Danielle Robinson, Whalen’s successor, spent the off-season here, studying film with Reeve and learning all facets of the offense while recovering from reconstructive left ankle surgery. An injury the Lynx initially described as a sprain turned out to be much worse: Robinson said she tore two ligaments and chipped off a piece of bone. After surgery she spent three months in a protective boot, putzing around on a scooter because she couldn’t put weight on the leg. Speed is Robinson’s game, so there was concern, but she says she’s fine. Robinson immersed herself so deeply in all things Lynx that Reeve named her a captain, joining Augustus and Fowles.
“It was good for me to be here because I also got to spend time with Coach and Walt (assistant coach Walt Hopkins) and get a head start on everything, how they want me to lead and how they want me to be this year,” said Robinson, who was cleared to play February 11. “Even if I was hurt and I couldn’t do everything, I was going to show them the moment I got on the court that this is what I wanted to do, and they could trust me with the reins.”
Reeve does. “She’s going to make it look so seamless that we’re going to forget she had a nine-month injury,” Reeve said. “She’s probably worked as hard as I’ve seen anybody in my 19 years in the WNBA. Not only has she healed, but her game has gotten better. That’s hard to do. When she able just to walk, we were walking through pick and roll reads and what we needed her to do. She’s really eager to lead this team.”
Sims is an intriguing addition, a gritty combo guard whose scoring average has dropped every year since she’s been in the league as her role and minutes changed. Sims usually tortured the Lynx, posting double-figure efforts in all five games of the 2017 Finals and dropping 21 points in the 2018 season opener. Whalen’s hard foul on Sims in Game 4 of those finals was meant to discourage her physical play. It didn’t, but it did fire up the Lynx, who won the final two games for their fourth title.
“That’s in the past,” Sims said. “What it was before is not what it is now. I’m glad to be a part of this organization and be a Minnesota Lynx.”
Though Sims lost her starting job by the end of last season, the Sparks matched an offer sheet from Phoenix to retain her as a restricted free agent before trading her to Minnesota. Reeve plans to pair Sims and Robinson often get the Lynx running, another benefit for Fowles, who loves to peel out on the break.
“It takes time to really figure out what you’ve got,” Reeve said, “but I think it’s going to prove to be a really important piece for us.”
Lexie Brown, a second-year guard acquired from Connecticut on draft night, adds 3-point shooting. Reeve plans to keep a rookie fifth guard, either second-round pick Cierra Dillard of Buffalo or third-rounder Kenisha Bell of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the front-court will have different look without Moore and Brunson. Free agents Damiris Dantas, a power forward back for her second stint with the Lynx, and small forward Karima Christmas-Kelly are the likely starters, with rookies Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard behind them. Reeve knew Collier and Shepard from USA Basketball, where Reeve is assistant coach of the national team.
The 6-2 Collier shifts from power forward in college to small forward with the Lynx; Moore made the same transition as a rookie. A versatile defender who averaged 20.8 points as a senior, Collier needs to be a consistent perimeter threat. Reeve sees the 6-4 Shepard as a power forward who can stretch defenses with her shooting. It was Reeve, last summer at USA Basketball tryouts, who suggested Shepard improve her diet and conditioning. Shepard lost 40 pounds, and her added mobility contributed to a terrific senior season, averaging 16.7 points and 10.3 rebounds.
Reeve will lean heavily on Augustus, Fowles and Robinson for leadership and instruction in a transitional year. What happens from here? Anything’s possible, and Lynx fans should be prepared for bumpy ride. In a best-case scenario, the team improves as the season progresses, new leaders emerge, and strong finish lands the Lynx in the playoffs. Worst case? The run of eight consecutive playoff appearances ends.
“When you move through a franchise’s history, you go through ebbs and flows and different eras,” Reeve said. “This is the start of a different era, but we still have some players who have been here.
“What the era is going to look like, I don’t know. But I know we’re going to teach like crazy, and we’re going to play hard. Everything we’ve come to know about the Lynx, we’re going to do. The plays that we run will be run by different players, hopefully with the same effectiveness.”