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Napheesa Collier: Locked In Lock-Down Defender

ByOwen Pence|@OwenPence| May 19, 2021
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Flashy players attract eyeballs; put on a show at all hours; and sell tickets. Napheesa Collier is the opposite of flashy, but she’s still a walking bucket – one that probably comes from a rebound. And you’ve absolutely got to have her on your radar.

A proper introduction to her game must include mention of defense, team-first tendencies, and other attributes that don’t exactly connote a “look at me!” type attitude. But her deceptively low-key demeanor delivers high results.

If she hasn’t already, Napheesa is about to take the WNBA by storm. The 24-year-old is as fundamentally sound a player as you will come across. She’s someone you show to your kids, hoping they will learn from her work ethic, selflessness, and refined skill-set. 

Napheesa hardly ever emotes on the court. When she hit a shot in 2020 and debuted a celebratory shimmy, jaws dropped. “Napheesa drawing attention to herself?” fans gasped. “It can’t be!” Indeed, Napheesa’s stoicism makes her a ruthless opponent. 

“My parents [Sarah and Gamal] always taught me to be really humble,” she said, “especially with people off the court, to treat people the right way.” Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Napheesa Collier derives much pride from her family history. Gamal’s father, Gershon, was a lawyer who played a crucial role in negotiating Sierra Leone’s independence from Great Britain in 1961, according to Abigail Pesta of St. Louis Magazine. 

But how did Napheesa become one of the most promising young basketball talents on the planet? Let’s start from the beginning. 

Napheesa Collier’s basketball evolution

Napheesa hails from a very athletic family. So it’s no surprise that she was drawn to the world of sports. Per her USA Basketball page, Gamal Collier played rugby at Buckingham University in the United Kingdom. Many of Napheesa’s cousins also competed in athletics at the collegiate level, ranging from basketball to baseball to golf. 

Though Napheesa eventually found her calling on the hardcourt, some of her earliest competitive memories were formed with a football in her hands. Napheesa and her younger brother, Kai, would match up one-on-one in their Missouri backyard with Gamal coaching them both. Napheesa was taller, so she’d win. 

Eventually, Napheesa realized her height could be even more advantageous in another arena. She began playing basketball and took to the sport naturally. But initially the sport didn’t want her back. As a third-grader in Jefferson City, Napheesa was denied by teams who claimed they already had “too many girls” and weren’t able to offer her a roster spot. But it didn’t take long for her talent to win out. Once Napheesa was offered a jersey, she soared. 

Napheesa Collier’s high school basketball career

It’s hard to imagine a more successful high school basketball career than Napheesa’s. Her family moved to St. Louis for her sophomore year, where she began playing for Incarnate Word Academy. Napheesa ended up leading her new school to three state championships in three seasons – and you just can’t do better than that!

Already, her cool demeanor was on display. “One thing that my dad always said was that you want to try to get a reaction out of the people you’re playing against, like, you want them to get frustrated. So if I’m trying to do that to them, why would I show them when I’m frustrated? I don’t want them to know that they’re getting to me,” she reminisced. “That’s kind of where my mindset came from. I have been doing that for such a long time because, you know, you love doing that, you love getting the other team riled up.”

Napheesa was named Gatorade Missouri Player of the Year in 2013 and 2015. She was named the 2015 USA Today Missouri Player of the Year. She earned Naismith, USA Today, and McDonald’s High School All-American honors in 2015. 

Her high school coach Dan Rolfes shared that opponents would ask to take a photo with her after the game. “Players on the other team or parents or even other coaches would ask to get their picture taken with Napheesa. She’s such a good person that even when people were losing to her, they had so much respect for her.”

Perhaps most impressively, Napheesa’s number 24 was the first to be retired in school history, per St. Louis Magazine. 

Napheesa Collier college basketball

Napheesa continued to turn heads as a student at the University of Connecticut. But the transition wasn’t easy. After ruling the courts in high school, she struggled to find her footing when she arrived at the University of Connecticut in 2015. As a freshman, “you have a huge spotlight on you,” she recalled.

“Everything is at a different level. You come in knowing that it’s gonna be hard because, yeah, I’m in college, it’s gonna be harder—people are faster, bigger, stronger—but you have no idea how hard it is until you actually get there. It’s the mental side of it that’s the hardest. You have to be completely locked in for two to three hours every day with a new system, a new team, a new everything.”

Nonetheless, she made an immediate impact on the court, appearing in all 38 games as a freshman and helping lead the Huskies to an undefeated season and NCAA Tournament trophy. Napheesa averaged 5.2 rebounds per game and shot over 53 percent from the floor in 2016, proving she could hang with more experienced competitors. 

Napheesa never won another NCAA title, but she still compiled a ludicrously impressive college resume: never failing to reach the Final Four, while always being one of the most effective and efficient players on the floor. 

Heading into her sophomore year, she turned a corner. “I just had to flip a switch in my mind,” she said, noting that she felt disappointed in her performance as a freshman. “I just made a decision that I never wanted to feel that way again, so I put in a bunch of work in the off season and I came back ready. It was kind of like that mental flip, saying, ‘I’m not gonna allow myself to be this way anymore.’”

As a sophomore, Napheesa averaged 20.4 points and 9.1 rebounds while ranking fourth nationally with a 67.8 field goal percentage, per the UConn basketball website. As a senior, Napheesa averaged 20.8 points and 10.8 rebounds and led the Huskies with 64 blocks. 

UConn is the most successful program in women’s college basketball history. That frames Napheesa’s all-time program ranks in an absurdly remarkable light. Napheesa is 3rd in career points, 4th in rebounds, 7th in blocks, 3rd in field goal percentage, and one of just five UConn players to hit 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. 

Napheesa Collier’s WNBA play

Napheesa was selected 6th overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft by the Minnesota Lynx. Again, the transition was rocky, but Napheesa was able to find her footing relatively quickly. “I found myself struggling again in the preseason; it felt like my freshman year a little bit, and I was just, like, ‘No, I’m not doing this again,’” she said

She wasted no time declaring she belonged in the league. In her first game as a professional, Napheesa dropped 27 points on the Chicago Sky, adding 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, per Across the Timeline. She took 10 shots and only missed two. Excluding only Candace Parker, it’s hard to remember a better debut. 

Napheesa didn’t let up all season, winning Rookie of the Year with averages of 13 points, 6.6 boards, and 1.9 steals. Her playoff debut was just as impressive as her regular season opener. Though Minnesota fell to Seattle, Napheesa posted a stat line of 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on 8-of-11 shooting. A more seamless transition from college to the pros could not be conjured. 

Players who excel as rookies often endure a so-called “sophomore slump.” Napheesa was immune. Instead, she steadily improved, earning a nod as one of the 10 best players in the league by making All-WNBA second team as well as All Defensive second team. Per Basketball Reference, she averaged 16.1 points, 9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks. She was exceptional in the playoffs, helping lead the Lynx past Phoenix and often looking like the best player on the floor despite Seattle sweeping Minnesota in the semifinals.

Heading into the 2021 WNBA season, upon Napheesa’s return stateside, Coach Cheryl Reeve said of her joining the team during a media call, “We’ve missed the effort that Phee plays with. Phee never stops moving, if you guys remember that’s what Geno would say about her. She’s an elite level when we talk about effort, and that’s what we said, that’s what the great ones do.”

“There’s a fine line between winning and losing – you know, the good teams versus the great teams – what do they have? They have players that are willing to give maximum effort at all times, and they accept nothing less than that. Whether they’re tired or not doesn’t matter. You’re going to get their very best. That’s what makes them Olympians; that makes them champions. And for the good players they’re left wondering ‘Gosh I wonder why they’re great and I’m not great.'”

“And so that’s what Phee gives you, and so, she does winning things. And that’s obviously really, really welcomed for our team.”

Napheesa Collier highlights

1. Napheesa Collier’s college highlights

There aren’t a ton of Napheesa’s college highlights available on the Internet. But here’s a taste. The first possession shown in this compilation features a move we will discuss later in this piece: the euro-step. From a young age it was abundantly clear Napheesa had what it took to excel as a professional basketball player. 

2. Napheesa’s WNBA rookie season highlights

Here are some of the best plays from Napheesa’s rookie season. Highlight reels often favor offense. What we love about this compilation is that the first two plays shown split the difference: one offensive and one defensive. Some of Napheesa’s most electrifying highlights come on the defensive end – generally soul-crushing blocks or sneaky steals. 

3. Napheesa’s semifinals highlights

This is the most impressive game of Napheesa’s career. Though Minnesota lost a heartbreaker, Napheesa kept her team in the game for the entire 40 minutes. She dominated on both ends of the floor. She made Breanna Stewart appear human. It was a complete performance on the biggest stage, and it portends truly stratospheric achievements to come. 

4. Napheesa Collier’s footwork highlights

This video, courtesy of Evin Gualberto, perfectly exemplifies the top-notch fundamentals and footwork showcased in Napheesa Collier’s game. Watch this entire highlight reel and you’ll become mesmerized by her ability to outmaneuver more experienced opponents on a routine basis. 

Napheesa Collier’s strengths 

Napheesa has an abundance of strengths. You could spend all day discussing what she does well on the basketball court. Luckily, we’ve narrowed it down for you, identifying the most essential elements of Napheesa’s game that make her such a fearsome opponent. 

1. Three-point shooting 

Napheesa became a completely different player upon entering the professional ranks, and that’s largely because of her improved long-range shooting. She wasn’t incapable of hitting three-pointers in college, but she never took more than 1.4 per game, according to Yahoo! Sports

Napheesa bumped that number to 2.4 as a rookie, knocking down 36 percent of her threes. In 2020, Napheesa exceeded 40 percent from deep on 2.2 attempts, per Basketball Reference. Power forwards who excel down low yet are able to hit 40 percent of their triples enter an elite tier of players. One must pick their poison when attempting to slow Napheesa, for you can’t guard against everything at once. 

Napheesa isn’t the type of three-point shooter who will dribble a bunch and launch a fancy step-back or an off-balance attempt. Instead, Napheesa spots-up, and her shooting stroke is extremely repeatable, with no wasted movements. Thus, she’s able to get her shot off quickly and hit from all different spots on the floor. It’s completely transformed her game. 

2. Post-ups 

This is Napheesa’s bread-and-butter. It’s the foundation of her game, allowing everything else to flourish. Napheesa is so effective down low because she’s strong, yet elusive. What do you do if you’re on the opposing coaching staff? Do you throw a larger defender on her, hoping to pit strength against strength? That could leave you susceptible to Napheesa’s outside shooting, or to her bottomless bag of evasive post-moves.

Do you throw a smaller, rangier, and quicker defender on her? That, too, will leave you susceptible, this time to Napheesa’s bully-ball abilities. If Napheesa identifies a mouse in her house, she’ll turn her back to the basket and slowly work towards the hoop until a fairly easy layup is available. 

Per Synergy Sports, Napheesa ranks in the WNBA’s 88th percentile on post-up efficiency (using points per possession). Her spatial intelligence is off-the-charts. Napheesa knows where the gaps in the defense are hidden, and she knows how to reach spots on the floor that will expose those gaps. 

Being good at posting up isn’t just about scoring. It’s about positioning and passing, too. Napheesa works hard on the floor, grinding to seal off defenders deep into the paint or by simply beating them down the floor. Her passing has gradually improved as she’s gotten older, to the point where it’s extremely risky to double her. Napheesa just keeps getting better. 

3. Rebounding 

This may be the most under-discussed part of Napheesa’s game, as it is with numerous players who do a plethora of things well. Rebounding isn’t exciting, but it’s perhaps the most important thing for teams to focus on. Rebounding swings games; it swings seasons. 

Napheesa ranked 3rd in the WNBA with 9 rebounds per game last season, trailing only Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles. Per Synergy, Napheesa ranked in the 98th percentile in put-backs. Stealing extra possessions by grabbing misses was commonplace for Napheesa in the bubble. Her strength and tenacity were rarely denied. 

4. Pick-and-rolls 

Napheesa Collier is unique in many ways, one of which being that she can operate on both sides of a pick-and-roll. Though she doesn’t run a ton of these actions, she’s capable of turning them into points when she does. Synergy rates Napheesa as above average both as the ball-handler and the roll player in pick-and-rolls. 

Napheesa’s shooting ability must be respected with the ball in her hands, allowing her to turn the corner on pressing defenders. Conversely when Napheesa is the one setting the screen, her size barreling down the lane is almost impossible to compete with. 

5. One-on-one defense 

Napheesa is so astute defensively that waiting this long to mention it is a travesty. Napheesa exhibits so much control defending in one-on-one situations that you’d think she’d been in the WNBA for a decade.

By studying the opposition, Napheesa has a great feel for certain moves she must be on the lookout for. If an offensive player is known for getting defenders to bite with pump-fakes, Napheesa will restrain herself from jumping.

Game 1 of the 2020 Semifinals was a perfect example of Napheesa’s one-on-one defensive dominance. Matched up against former league MVP Breanna Stewart, Napheesa blocked every shot Breanna attempted in a riveting and tightly contested fourth quarter. Napheesa knew that Breanna leaned on a midrange fadeaway jumper, so she took it away. If you can lock down Breanna Stewart in a one-on-one situation, you can lock down anyone. 

6. Help defense 

Napheesa is also an expert off the ball. This was something that she continually got better at over the course of her years at UConn. Napheesa will slither away from her assignment when she notices a ball handler with their back turned, sneaking up and either poking the ball away for a steal or rising to block a shot. 

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve has helped Collier get even better when it comes to certain aspects of team defense. Napheesa closes out on jump shooters in a more controlled fashion now. She knows when to stick close to her assignment, and when to hover off of her assignment toward the strong side of the floor. 

Napheesa isn’t fantastic switching onto quick guards, but she’s certainly not horrible, either. No one expects a power forward to put the clamps on speedy guards; you just have to hold your own. Napheesa more than holds her own, and if she gets blown by it doesn’t affect her mentality. That’s what makes her a franchise player. 

Napheesa Collier’s WNBA weaknesses

You have to spend a while searching before you discover many weaknesses in Napheesa Collier’s game. She’s a complete player. That said, even complete players can get better in numerous areas. She is young and there’s plenty she can do to improve her game – though experience tops the list according to Napheesa: “I think the biggest aspect is mental, just like with anything experience is so important. And in this way you have people like Sue [Bird] and Diana [Taurasi], they’re obviously great players, but they’re so smart in the way that they play and it’s why they’ve been able to play for so long at a high level. So just more experience, and this’ll be my second year being a captain.”

1. Isolation scoring

This is the next step in Napheesa’s evolution from All-Star talent to MVP talent. It’s what’s holding her back from becoming the best player in the game. Because Napheesa is deliberate and not very fast, her offensive game relies a lot on finesse, strength, and intelligence. 

Yet there are still ways to develop a one-on-one perimeter scoring arsenal considering those physical barriers. The key element? Dribbling. Napheesa has developed her handles in the offseason and while playing overseas in Europe. If she can get comfortable enough putting the ball on the floor not just as a method of driving to the hoop but also as a way to create space for herself outside, she’ll unlock myriad possibilities. 

2. Speed  

This is pretty straightforward. You can’t teach or work on speed. You can find ways to get quicker and improve your reaction time, but speed is speed. Napheesa won’t beat too many players in a foot race, even if she constantly hustles and often gets down the floor before other frontcourt players. 

Is a lack of speed holding Napheesa back? Not really, but again we’re here to nitpick. If Napheesa was faster, she’d already be a demon in isolation scoring opportunities. Instead, she has to work harder for her buckets rather than simply beating defenders off the dribble every time down the floor. 

3. Cutting

Per Synergy, Napheesa ranks in the 21st percentile on cuts, placing her considerably below league average. Part of this is tied to the previous weakness: speed. Sometimes Napheesa gets beat to her spot when moving off-the-ball. 

This is an example of digging incredibly deep to find some rather insignificant weeds. Ultimately, Minnesota doesn’t need Napheesa to be an elite cutter, nor are players with her build and skill-set often called upon to perform such actions. Would it be nice if Napheesa could approach league-average as a cutter? Of course. But it’s not necessary for her to be an elite player. 

4. Assist-to-turnover ratio

Per WNBA.com, Napheesa notched a 1.24 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2020, good for 68th in the WNBA. This isn’t as bad as it looks. Firstly, Napheesa is a high volume player. High volume players turn the ball over more because they score in bunches and are allowed room for error. Many of the players above Napheesa on the assist-to-turnover leaderboard are working with far smaller sample sizes.

Secondly, Napheesa isn’t known for her facilitating abilities. Though we’ve already discussed the ways in which Napheesa’s passing has progressed, she’s not a point guard. Assist-to-turnover ratio is a point guard stat. 

5. Late-in-shot-clock situations 

This is essentially the same as isolation scoring, but there simply wasn’t anywhere else to look. You get the picture by now: Napheesa Collier is extremely good! Once she can create three-point looks for herself with the shot clock waning, we’ll have a legend on our hands. 

As Napheesa told Uproxx earlier this year, “I’m playing in France right now, so I felt like last year because of COVID, you know, I couldn’t play [overseas] and I felt kind of rusty coming back into the season. So I was really excited to be able to play this year, try to work on things that I think I need to get better at like three point shooting and things like that.”

Napheesa Collier’s go-to moves

1. Pump-fake

Napheesa’s improved three-point shot forces defenders to close out on her with verve. As a counter, Napheesa will send them flying by with a mean pump-fake and go combination. It’s incredibly effective. Napheesa won’t just use it behind the arc; she loves pulling out the pump fake in the post as well, getting defenders to bite in one direction, then veering off in the other for a layup. 

2. Up-and-under

This one is all about the footwork. By keeping her pivot foot planted, Napheesa uses her other leg to spin the defender in circles. She’ll turn her back slightly so that her back is facing whoever’s guarding her, pivot left until the defense commits, then slide back to her right under her airborne opponent. This is also called a step-through

3. Euro step

Napheesa doesn’t break out the euro step very often, but when she does defenders go straight into the blender. This has become one of the most popular moves in basketball over the last decade or so. It is often used in transition, when a defender is preparing to take a charge. As a mode of evasion, the offensive player takes a step in one direction, then takes a second, exaggerated step in the other direction, swiveling around said defender and into an uncontested layup. 

4. Spin move

Napheesa isn’t known for her moves as much as her fundamentals, making a spin even more effective when she does break it out. 

5. Fadeaway midrange jumper

Sometimes Napheesa will use her spin move as a way of creating space for her fadeaway jump shot. Because her footwork is impeccable, she can hit this shot from both sides of the floor. 

Napheesa Collier’s stats and awards

Buckle up. Time to give you an idea of just how stuffed Napheesa Collier’s mantle is. Per the USA Basketball website, here are some of the accolades Napheesa collected during her time at UConn:

  • Two-time AP First Team All-American (2017 and 2019)
  • Two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year (2017 and 2019)
  • 2019 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year
  • 2019 NCAA Albany Regional Most Outstanding Player
  • 2019 American Athletic Conference Tournament Most Outstanding Player
  • 2018 AP Third Team All-American
  • 2018 NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team
  • 2017 NCAA Bridgeport Regional Most Outstanding Performer
  • 2016 American Athletic Conference All-Freshman Team

Napheesa has continued to rack up the hardware in the WNBA. Most notably, she was named 2019 Rookie of the Year while earning an All-Star Game nod the same season. She took it up another level in 2020, cracking the All-WNBA second team and the All-Defensive second team. 

Statistically, Napheesa’s numbers reveal just how hard of a worker she actually is. There are hardly any categories where she didn’t improve from 2019 to 2020. Per Basketball Reference, Napheesa’s scoring average rose from 13.1 to 16.1, her rebounding average rose from 6.6 to 9, her block average rose from 0.9 to 1.3, and her free throw attempts rose from 3 to 3.5.

Bumps like these are only as good as their corresponding efficiency numbers, and indeed Napheesa boasts across-the-board improvements. Her shooting splits as a rookie? 49/36/79 (field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw percentage). Her shooting splits in year two? 52/41/83. 

Napheesa’s advanced stats weave a similar tale. Per Basketball Reference, she ranked 8th in the WNBA in Player Efficiency Rating in 2020. The seven players ahead of her are a who’s-who of basketball excellence: Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry, Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Diana Taurasi, Courtney Vandersloot, and Candace Parker. Elite company would be an understatement. Napheesa also finished 2nd in offensive win shares and 9th in defensive win shares, proving just how special she is on both sides of the ball. 

What’s next

Napheesa’s third WNBA season is next! Due to overseas commitments, Napheesa missed the Lynx’s season opener against Phoenix. She’s arrived in the States but must pass a series of COVID tests before returning to action and will likely miss a few more games. Once she returns, the league will be on notice. 

It was also recently announced that Napheesa will be joining Sopron Basket, a Hungarian club, for the 2021-2022 overseas season. She will join fellow WNBA players Gabby Williams and Briann January following her third season with the Lynx. 

As if all that wasn’t enough, Napheesa co-hosts a podcast with 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson. “Tea with A and Phee” has partnered with Just Women’s Sports and will be recording new episodes shortly. 

And Napheesa has partnered with the Jr. NBA, along with Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies, to co-chair the Jr. NBA Court of Leaders, a new program that pairs up-and-coming young basketball players with mentors from the NBA and WNBA. The goal is to provide them with resources to continue growing not just as players, but off the court as future leaders in the community.

Napheesa Collier; what can’t she do? 

Up next, read all about Napheesa’s teammate Crystal Dangerfield.

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