Napheesa Collier was on a baseball field in her hometown of St. Louis, MO, when a local basketball coach approached her. She told Collier, who was in the fourth grade at the time, that her team was having tryouts and that she hoped to see her there. Collier hadn’t hooped before that point, but she was willing to give it a try.
Fast-forward to last month, and Collier, who played soccer and was a softball pitcher, became the sixth pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft.
“I just remember how awkward I was,” Collier says with a laugh about her earliest memories of playing basketball. “I played soccer for so long, so working with my feet, then transitioning to my hands, I just remember how weird it was to do that.”
There was a shift around eighth grade when Collier says she could see that she was gaining separation as one of the better players in her state. And that’s when she got her first collegiate scholarship offer. After starring at two different Missouri-based high schools (Jefferson City High School and Incarnate Word Academy), she decided to go to the University of Connecticut. She learned very quickly from a trio of the best that UConn had to offer.
“My freshman year, I really looked up to Morgan Tuck and the way that she led, which was by example,” Collier says. “That’s what I tried to do for my first three years.”
The 6-2 Collier put the work in and got the results, averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds as a sophomore, 16 points and 7 rebounds as a junior and 21 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. The achievements continued to pile up as Collier became one of the best do-it-all forwards in the nation. She matured into a bully in the paint, a knockdown three-point shooter, a lockdown defender and a rebounding machine. That’s why her coaches at UConn, Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey, challenged her to become a vocal leader in her last season.
“Being a senior this year I had to step out of my comfort zone a little bit, and that’s what they told me I would have to do,” she says. “Be more vocal and be that on-the-court kind of leader.”
Auriemma and Dailey have been coaching together since 1985. They’re the opposite forces that hold the Huskies’ powerhouse program together.
“Coach [Auriemma] is way more laid back than people think he is,” Collier says. “It’s kind of CD running the show behind-the-scenes.”
With her coaches pushing her, Collier wrote her name in the UConn history books when she became just the fifth Husky to ever record at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in their career, joining a list that includes Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart and Rebecca Lobo. Collier also left UConn with a national chip on her résumé.
Now she’s headed to Minnesota to start her professional career. “We talk about Napheesa just being a little bit of everything,” her new head coach, Cheryl Reeve, said after the draft. “My experience with her at USA Basketball gave me a really good look into who she is and what she’s capable of. Power forward, small forward…she’s just a player. We’re excited to get someone who’s been incredibly efficient.”
Reeve also called her a Swiss army knife on the court, and that’s the true strength of Collier’s game. From the softball diamond to the soccer field to the basketball court, ever since she was a kid, Collier’s been doing it all.
Photos via Getty.
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