Longtime Lynx season ticket holders know the postgame victory routine at Target Center by heart. The whole team gathers on the court for a dance break, punctuated by two players – often a veteran and a newbie – meeting at the center jump circle for a leaping body bump.
The latter, apparently, was one piece of business new Lynx captain Napheesa Collier neglected to brief rookie Diamond Miller about before last Friday’s exhibition opener at the Target Center. Only after the 72-69 victory over the Washington Mystics, which Miller and three other rookies finished off impressively, did Collier clue her in, waiting until the postgame huddle to do it.
Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s WNBA draft – the earliest by the Lynx since Maya Moore in 2011 – wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. She jumped so timidly she and Collier only grazed each other.
“I honestly heard there was dancing at the end,” Miller said. “I’m not really a good dancer, but I like to dance. I’m just going with the flow and learning, learning, learning.”
There’s been a lot of that in this camp, probably the most competitive since Coach Cheryl Reeve arrived in 2010.
Center Sylvia Fowles, the last remaining star from the championship years, retired after last season, when the club’s WNBA-record run of 12 consecutive playoff appearances ended. Reeve insisted on calling the past few seasons “retooling” rather than “rebuilding,” patching holes with free agents and acquired veterans to stay competitive. But without Fowles, the four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Star, there’s no doubt what this season is about: Starting over, with Collier – the two-time All-Star who missed almost all last season before and after giving birth to her first child – as the foundation.
“Phee (Collier) is the epitome of what we want to see – a selfless person, emotionally mature, handles ups and downs in a way that impresses,” Reeve said.
After losing out on superstars Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot in free agency, Reeve turned to the draft. WNBA rosters are notoriously difficult for rookies to make, yet Reeve vowed to give the club’s four draftees – Miller, Connecticut forward Dorka Juhász, South Carolina guard Brea Beal and forward Taylor Soule of Virginia Tech – legitimate shots.
“Unlike some years past, we are incredibly open-minded about who is on our roster and why,” said Reeve, also the president of basketball operations. “They will absolutely be given very good looks and a chance to be on our team.”
With five veterans on guaranteed contracts (Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, free agent signee Tiffany Mitchell, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa), three more on non-guaranteed deals (Collier, Jessica Shepard and Nicolina Milić) and two on training camp contracts (Rachel Banham and Damiris Dantas), keeping more than two draftees would require serious salary cap maneuvering. Achonwa is pregnant and unlikely to return until late in the season.
And yet, Reeve’s point is well-taken. Last year’s turnover-prone squad never found an identity after Reeve cut injured veterans Angel McCoughtry and Layshia Clarendon early on, and many nights the reserves outplayed the starters. And the defense? Awful. The Lynx gave up 83.9 points per game, the most in franchise history. Reeve acknowledged as much April 13 when the club introduced Beal, a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, and the rest of the draft class at the Target Center.
“Anybody that watched us defensively knows we needed Brea Beal,” Reeve said.
Friday night, Reeve followed through by putting all four rookies on the floor at crunch time with Mitchell, the former Indiana Fever standout, running the point. It happened just after a Collier layup gave the Lynx, who trailed by eight points entering the fourth quarter, a 65-63 lead. Against Mystics backups, that youthful unit forced five turnovers as the Lynx held on. Soule provided the energy, Beal the defense, Juhász the muscle (she finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds) and Miller a bit of everything.
“It was really cool,” Miller said. “This was our first time out there and I know it was only a preseason game, but for us it felt like a real game.”
Without Fowles, one of the WNBA’s great low post players, the Lynx shifted to an offense with all five players on the perimeter. This so-called “five out” alignment, similar to what the Lynx ran without the injured Fowles (right calf strain) in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, spreads the floor so players like Collier, Powers and Miller can drive to the basket. If the defense cuts them off, the ball goes back out to three-point shooters like McBride. That’s the theory, anyway. It’s predicated on Collier regaining her pre-pregnancy form and hitting more 3-pointers, something she worked on in the off-season.
“Without Syl (Fowels) here, it opens up the paint a lot more,” Collier said. “It’s a lot of driving, a lot of attacking, a lot of one-on-ones. It’s taking advantage of the athleticism and size we have now.”
It all remains a work in progress. Collier, still trying to find her footing, missed all four 3-point attempts Friday night. Miller, given the green light by Reeve to shoot whenever she wanted, mixed the good (a game-high 19 points) with the bad (five turnovers). Mitchell, Banham and Lindsay Allen, a late addition last season, figure to share minutes at point guard.
Reeve should know more about what she has after Saturday’s exhibition finale against Chicago in Toronto. McBride arrived last weekend after finishing her overseas season in Turkey, the earliest she’s reported to camp in three seasons. That should help.
One more thing: Reeve is already on record saying the Lynx won’t tank the season for the chance to draft Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, the breakout star of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Given all the youth and uncertainty, the Lynx might miss the playoffs again on merit alone. Or not. Any way you look at it, it’s a dance to a different beat.