Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve reached out to Napheesa Collier with an important question ahead of Sunday’s game.
“Do you want to stick to the plan,” Reeve asked, “or do you want to play today?”
Starter Aerial Powers had been ruled out against the Atlanta Dream, and the Lynx were in need of a boost. With the regular season winding down and Minnesota just out of reach of a playoff spot, it was a near must-win situation.
“Let me call you back,” Reeve recalled Collier saying. “Let me take a few minutes.”
Collier had hoped to return from maternity leave at some point this season to play alongside teammate and friend Sylvia Fowles in her final year before retirement, but she wanted to weigh her options and not rush into a decision. After thinking it over, she knew her body was ready and it was just nerves holding her back. So she called Reeve back two minutes later with her answer.
“I want to play.”
The former UConn star made her 2022 WNBA season debut in a 81-71 win over the Atlanta Dream on Sunday night, back on the court less than three months after giving birth to her daughter, Mila, on May 25.
“I was really excited,” Collier said while holding Mila postgame. “Obviously there were some nerves coming in, especially this late in the season and trying to get back here and rush to do everything. But it felt so good to hear my name called and have the fans cheer for me. ... I’m really glad that I played tonight.”
The 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year was inserted into the starting lineup in what was a crucial victory for the Lynx — they are now one game back of a playoff spot with three regular-season contests left. Collier finished with six points (on 2 of 7 shooting), two rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal in 21 minutes, about double the time she expected.
“I was surprised when she kept putting me back in, but I wasn’t going to say anything,” Collier said. “So it felt really good. I felt a little winded, as to be expected, until the very end when I was really feeling it, but I thought that, you know, not back to where I want to be, but it was a good first game.”
Collier averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in 2021. Though she didn’t put up the same type of numbers Sunday night — and expectedly so — it was an impressive showing for her first performance back. She made a noticeable impact by doing the little things to help Minnesota come away with the win.
“Phee does give players confidence,” Reeve said. “Her energy and her movement, it just creates easier things for other people, and then her length defensively is pretty helpful.”
Reeve remarked that the performance was “probably about as successful” as she thought it could have been. She also noted how Collier gave the team a boost of momentum in the fourth quarter. With under eight minutes left, Collier drove inside from the top of the arc and burst past her defender to score a layup, while drawing a foul in the process. The and-one play extended Minnesota’s lead to eight points.
Collier also drained a 3-pointer from the wing earlier in the game. The second quarter play came off an assist from fellow former UConn star Moriah Jefferson, who finished the night with 18 points, six assists and four rebounds. The duo won a national championship together in 2016, when Collier was a freshman and Jefferson was a senior, but this was their first time playing on the same team in the WNBA.
“Some of the same tendencies that she had in college she still has now,” Jefferson said on the postgame broadcast. “So it was cool to get a little skip pass to her and get a 3 knocked down. It’s great playing with Phee, and I’m just happy she’s back.”
Collier had mostly scrimmaged with male practice players leading up to the game. It’ll take some time for her to adjust back to game speed as well as learn some of the new plays Minnesota is running this season, and soreness is expected after the first game. But having her back is certainly a boost for the Lynx as they try to make a playoff push.
“Each time she plays she’s just going to get more comfortable,” Reeve said. “The evolution of her is just kind of getting back in the flow of what we’re doing and in which ways that we can possibly get her some easy stuff.”
Collier and the Lynx have three games left in the regular season. They play the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday in what should be a heated contest between two teams trying to claw for a playoff spot. Minnesota then faces two of the top five teams in the league, at home against the Seattle Storm on Friday and at the Connecticut Sun on Sunday.
“I’m not going to try to come in and do too much,” Collier said. “I’m going to play my role, give effort like I always do and let the game kind of come to me, not force it, and help us to try to make a playoff push. … I’m going to come in and do whatever coach asks me to do, whatever I need to do for the team to make that happen.”