WNBA teams lack scouting staffs, so the coaches themselves spend the fall and winter on the road evaluating draft prospects. That duty took Lynx assistant coach Shelley Patterson to the U.S. Virgin Islands last November for the women’s Paradise Jam, an early-season tournament featuring 11-time NCAA champion Connecticut and seven other schools.
Patterson’s scouting list included Naphessa Collier, the star UConn forward. As the games unfolded, the 6-foot-1 Collier showed WNBA-level speed and skills in every department except one. And it was a big one. “The one thing she can’t do,” Patterson remembers thinking, “is shoot.”
Patterson told this story after a Lynx practice last week, punctuated with an incredulous laugh. The whole thing seems crazy now. The Lynx didn’t expect Collier to be available when they picked sixth in the draft last April, but she was. Then again, the Lynx didn’t expect Collier to be this good this quickly, but she is. Going into this weekend, Collier stands among the league’s top rookies in scoring (12.9 points), rebounding (6.5), assists (2.5) and steals (1.9). Collier has been especially productive lately, averaging 15.8 points in her last 13 games while shooting 53.4% from the floor and a stunning 41.9% on 3-pointers.
That, along with her defense, helped the transitional Lynx land their ninth consecutive playoff berth. Games this weekend at Phoenix and Los Angeles, the last of the regular season, will determine whether the Lynx host a first-round playoff game next week. Either way, Collier’s teammates say she should be WNBA Rookie of the Year. Former league MVP Sylvia Fowles playfully calls her “Roy,” fashioning a nickname from the initials for Rookie of the Year.
“There’s almost nothing more you can ask of her to do,” Fowles said
Late-season awards campaigns are in full swing, and the Dallas Wings are pushing guard Arike Ogunbowale as hard for top rookie as the Lynx are pushing Collier. Ogunbowale, from Notre Dame, and Collier were big college rivals, forever linked by Ogunbowale’s game-winning jumper in double overtime that beat UConn in the 2018 NCAA semifinals. Photos and video of the shot show a desperate Collier jumping out too late to contest it.
The choice will come down to what voters value. Ogunbowale tops all rookies in scoring at 18.5 points per game. Like Collier, Ogunbowale has come on lately, averaging 24.9 points in August to win the league’s Rookie of the Month award. (Collier won it in July.) Wednesday night Ogunbowale posted her third consecutive 30-point game, a first for a WNBA rookie.
But is it about scoring or overall play? To Lynx captain and 2006 ROY winner Seimone Augustus, it better be the latter, though Augustus might have answered differently her rookie year, when her 21.9 point average carried the day in a scoring contest with runner-up Cappie Pondexter (19.5).
“I don’t even know why we need to campaign for Phee,” Augustus said Sunday night after the Lynx won their fourth straight, beating Indiana 81-73. “I think it’s pretty obvious. And it’s no disrespect to Arike. She’s having an amazing season — well, half of the season. She started off a little rough at the beginning of the year and then picked it up.
“But when we talk about a body of work, from start to finish, Phee has been consistent throughout the entire year. She’s put up numbers. She’s been what we needed with players in and out of the lineup, with the team shifting. She stayed consistent. She’s almost been like an anchor for the team. I don’t know what else she needs to prove to be Rookie of the Year.”
And Collier did it while fixing her awkward jumpshot. Which brings us back to the Paradise Jam.
Patterson, in her 10th season with the Lynx, saw three issues for the right-handed shooting Collier. Her left hand covered so much of the ball that she shot almost two-handed, her left thumb pushing shots left or right — a common mistake coaches call “thumbing the ball.” Collier’s right elbow also flared out, affecting her aim. And she shot the ball on her way down. All that explained why Collier’s 3-point shooting percentage plummeted from .431 as a sophomore to .344 as a junior, and dropped further to .283 as a senior.
Repairing shooting mechanics is a Patterson specialty; she helped Lindsay Whalen fix hers. But as the draft approached, the Lynx thought Collier would be someone else’s problem. The club expected Collier to go among the first five picks, leaving Ogumbowale for them. But when it didn’t happen and Dallas grabbed Ogumbowale at No. 5, Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve happily drafted Collier.
“We were going to make out either way, whichever one,” Reeve said. “But we got the Rookie of the Year.”
Collier was stunned when Patterson showed her video and still photos of her shot. “I would see pictures, and it would look ridiculous,” Collier said. “I knew it was something I had to change.”
(So why didn’t Coach Geno Auriemma or anyone else at UConn correct this? Excellent question. Reeve jokingly blamed Collier’s Missouri-based skills coach, Alex Bazzell, a good gag if you know Bazzell and Collier are dating. “The first thing we said to her the first day was, ‘Get rid of that guy,’” said Reeve, who was kidding.)
Patterson started by making Collier shoot one-handers in close, ten at a time, all around the rim, then gradually extending the distance. “I did a few tricks with her I would do with Whalen,” Patterson said. She worked in weighted and oversized balls, making a regulation ball seem easier for Collier to shoot. The NOAH shot analysis system the Lynx installed at their Mayo Clinic Square practice facility helped Collier develop the proper release and shot arc.
“The biggest thing was getting that guide hand free, not on top of the ball but on the side of the ball,” Patterson said. “She got better. Every now and then she would go back to old habits. You would see it. But for the most part she’s underneath (the ball), right up to her nose, and right to the follow through. And I think that’s helped.”
Though still adapting to the changes, Collier scored 27 points on Opening Night against Chicago, second-most for anyone in their first WNBA game; Candace Parker had 34 in 2008. “It’s a funny thing, because working on it, you never know if it’s really going to work,” Patterson said. “Then the first game out against Chicago, she’s hitting 3s, she’s hitting step-back 3s, and I’m like, ‘I know I didn’t teach her that.’ ”
As the season progressed, Collier moved from small forward to power forward due to injuries to Jessica Shepard and Damiris Dantas, then back again. All the while Reeve encouraged her to shoot 3-pointers whenever open, and keep shooting them.
“She is unafraid to impose her will on the game,” Reeve said. “She really got to a place where she’s really comfortable, and there’s not a bad shot. She needs to take shots, to be aggressive. She knows where her great shots are, and we’re imploring to shoot 3s. We don’t care if they’re airballs. Shoot them.”
On a given night Collier does a little bit of everything. Facing Dallas and Ogumbowale on August 22 at the Target Center, Collier contributed 19 points, five rebounds and four steals in an 86-70 victory; Ogumbowale scored a game-high 22 points while committing five turnovers. When the Lynx locker room opened to reporters, Collier was the only player at her locker. Her teammates deliberately hung back to give the rookie the spotlight.
Sunday night Collier had 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two steals. That made her the only WNBA rookie besides Indiana’s Tamika Catchings in 2002 with 400 points, 200 rebounds and 60 steals in a season.
Augustus believes Collier could be a league Most Valuable Player winner one day. That raises another question looking to 2020: Who plays small forward when former MVP Maya Moore, returns from sabbatical?
“You cross that bridge when you get to it,” Reeve said. “To have two great players on the same team is a dream problem to have.”