MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Lynx tried a stopgap approach to filling the void from the disassembly of their four-championship dynasty, a patchwork process that worked all right until a collapse last season left them out of the playoffs and produced the worst record in 13 seasons under head coach Cheryl Reeve.
The time for a clear new direction has come, with Napheesa Collier and Diamond Miller leading the way.
Collier's return and Miller's arrival have sparked a freshness around one of the WNBA's model franchises and left Reeve feeling “energized and enthused” by her first training camp without anyone from the last title-winning team in 2017.
The Lynx open the season on Friday against Chicago.
“As ‘Phee’ grows in her skillset and Diamond improves in her skillset, yeah, that’s a pretty good combination," Reeve said.
Collier accelerated her maternity leave last year to play one last time next to Sylvia Fowles, coming back for the final four games. The Lynx used their luck in the lottery to get the No. 2 pick in the draft and land Diamond Miller, the relentless, quick and versatile wing from Maryland.
Reeve, who holds the dual role of president of basketball operations, bluntly criticized the Lynx without naming names late last season for an unwillingness to buy in to team strategy or chemistry. Ever the demanding boss, Reeve has been sounding a far different tone this month in her assessments after the frustrating 14-22 finish in 2022.
“What an easy adjustment it’s been for Diamond Miller,” Reeve said.
Really? For a rookie?
“She’s been able to do the things we watched her do at Maryland. She’s finding ways to be successful. Yeah, she’s got a lot to learn. Yeah, she messes up a lot,” Reeve said. "She’s literally, from the first time that she stepped on the floor, been one of our best players. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Collier overlapped with one knee-injury-ruined season for Seimone Augustus, the all-time franchise scoring leader who fueled the run of championships in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017. Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson were all gone in 2019 for Collier’s debut. Now Fowles is too, and this is unquestionably the fifth-year forward's team.
“The future is really bright here, especially with Diamond as our rookie,” Collier said. “I’m going to try to bring her under my wing as much as I can, and the future is always the goal.”
Collier was 13th in the league in scoring in her last full season with a 16.2-points-per-game average in 2021. She averaged 6.6 rebounds, ranking 16th in the league. The 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year award winner gave birth to her daughter Mila last May. She and her husband, Alex Bazzell, were married in her native Missouri last October.
Miller's recent self-assessment was not quite the glowing report that Reeve provided, undoubtedly an encouraging sign of hunger and humility for a team that's planning to build around her skills and personality for years to come.
“This gap is steep,” Miller said, “and it’s what we signed up for.”
The learning curve is where Collier comes in.
“No matter what the situation is, she stays calm,” Miller said. “She’s like, ‘We’re good,’ and that’s a good trait to have.”
With newcomer Tiffany Mitchell joining Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers in the backcourt, Collier and Miller will be the catalysts for a faster-paced and more adaptable offense that will feature more passing and cutting without the advantage of dumping the ball to Fowles in the post.
Collier has refined her 3-point shot to become more of the inside-outside threat that the best modern power forwards in the game must be.
“It's a lot better because it’s natural now. Before it was like, ‘Oh, should I shoot this? Should I not?’ I had to think about it,” Collier said. “Now I feel like I’ve gotten in so many reps in that it’s just second nature.”
Now it's time to start the new era for the Lynx.
“You never doubt Cheryl," Collier said. "You always know she has a plan.”