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Napheesa Collier Could Be Playing Herself Into A Very Tough Decision

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Sept. 07, 2020, 9:30 a.m. (ET)

Napheesa Collier #24 of the Minnesota Lynx drives to the basket past Tamera Young #1 of the Las Vegas Aces during their game on July 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

 

Minnesota Lynx star forward Napheesa Collier, like the rest of the world, is having a 2020 full of unexpected twists and turns.

It was just five months ago that she was supposed to join three fellow WNBA players in India for the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. If all went as planned they would have qualified for the first Olympic 3x3 tournament this summer in Tokyo, and maybe just maybe she’d be back in Minneapolis now with a shiny new gold medal to show off as the Lynx entered the stretch run for another playoff berth.

Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. The 3x3 qualifier in March was one of the first events to be postponed, and not long after the Tokyo Games were pushed back one year to 2021. The WNBA season, meanwhile, is underway but with the entire league living and playing inside a secure bubble in Bradenton, Florida.

“I think it was a lot to take in at first, because it was all happening so fast,” Collier, 23, told TeamUSA.org from inside the bubble. “I was really excited for this year, as I have always wanted to be on the U.S. Olympic Team since I was a kid. It’s just going to have to wait a little longer.”

Collier still might get that opportunity in 2021.

In a twist, however, she might just be playing herself into a tough decision.

Collier has represented Team USA in 3x3 for years, including at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, where she won a gold medal. The 3x3 route has long been seen as a golden opportunity for one of the WNBA’s rising young stars to make a first trip to the Olympics.

However, partway into her second WNBA season, Collier is showing she’s not just a rising young star. After averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds in a Rookie of the Year effort last year, the former UConn star is averaging 14.9 points and 9.0 rebounds through 10 games in 2020, holding her own in both categories with the league’s elite.

Could the call be coming for a 2021 Olympic spot not in 3x3 but in the traditional 5x5 squad?

Collier said she’s talked to USA Basketball about both teams. If she were to be selected, she’d have to decide which team she’d want to play for. She couldn’t play on both.

“I honestly don’t know what decision I would make, because both are such cool opportunities,” she said. “3x3 has never been done before, it’s the first time happening in the Olympics, so it would be amazing to be part of that. I’d love to be on the very first 3s team in the Olympics and showing the world what a great sport it is. But then you have the 5s. That is the team everybody grows up watching on TV and wanting to be like. They have been the face of USA Basketball in so many Olympics. They are the best of the best in the USA.

“I really don’t know. It’s so different. Both are great teams to be on. I will see what happens.”

Collier admits she really can’t lose either way, because both would accomplish her vision.

“I have huge goals that I want to accomplish in my career, and that is at the top of the list,” she said. “I have definitely thought about that, wearing that uniform, a lot, and I want to make the Olympics happen.”

Collier, a 6-1 forward with a sweet offensive touch, shows versatility by mastering two very different types of basketball. 

3x3 is a fast-growing version of the sport played on a half-court with one basket. Teams of three (with one sub) play either 10 minutes or to 21 points, whichever comes first, with baskets counting for one or two points. Players must be versatile to go up against players of different sizes. Offensive play is key.

The skills needed are different from the traditional 5x5 game seen in gyms across the world for years, where teams are bigger and there’s more emphasis on strategy, defense and player rotations.

Collier said she takes joy in both games, as she loves the offense and fast pace of the 3s, and the physicality and mental strength required in the 5s. 

No amount of basketball experience could have prepared her for this WNBA season, which has the players in isolation (nicknamed the Wubble) in Bradenton. They are living together in condos by team, playing their games in the same location at the IMG Academy and avoiding interacting with the outside world to stop the spread of COVID.

The Wubble is working, as the WNBA is playing and there have been no positive tests for COVID since teams arrived on July 6. Collier has been busy in Florida. Between helping lead the retooling Lynx to a strong start, she’s also starting a podcast with A’ja Wilson of the Aces, called “Tea with A & Phee,” to talk about their perspective of life as younger WNBA players and host guests like Elena Delle Donne, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant. 

“It was kind of strange at first, being together with everybody all time, because as a pro, you don’t do that — you play or practice and then go home to your life,” Collier said. “But I actually realized pretty quickly that I love being together with my teammates so much. It’s like being in college again, where you are eating meals, hanging out and playing together all the time. We’re having a great time, and the podcast has been the most fun. The reaction to it has been great.”

Joanne C. Gerstner

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.