The last time Napheesa Collier played in a game, it was at the end of a race to play alongside retiring icon Sylvia Fowles. And Collier, returning just 10 weeks after giving birth, was far from being in top form.
"That was very challenging," Lynx and Team USA coach Cheryl Reeve said. "She doesn't recommend that."
The 2023 season started for Collier on Tuesday at The Courts at Mayo Clinic Square, just without her Lynx teammates. Replacing them was a jaw-dropping collection of WNBA greats who will lead USA basketball into the next cycle of international tournaments, which includes the FIBA World Cup in September, Olympic qualifying and then the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
With Reeve as the head coach for the cycle, two minicamps are being held in Minneapolis. So there Collier was on Tuesday, back with Team USA after helping it to an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 2020. She fit right in with WNBA stars like Washington's Elena Delle Donne, New York's Sabrina Ionescu, Las Vegas' Kelsey Plum and legendary Phoenix scorer Diana Taurasi.
Media were allowed into the gym for the final 30 minutes of practice, but during that time Collier didn't look like someone trying to catch up.
"It's so good to have Phee back," Taurasi said. "She's been one of my favorites forever. The nicest kid. The best teammate. Works her tail off on the court. Can do so many different things."
Collier smiled as she spoke about being back on a court and feeling like her old self again after months of lifting and conditioning.
"I feel so much better," Collier said. "I was really just trying to get myself together enough to play with Syl, but I wasn't ready physically, anywhere near that."
It's hard to fault someone for wanting to be part of Fowles' farewell tour, but let's forget those four late-season games happened. She averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds a game in those games as the Lynx completed a disappointing season.
She's had nearly six months since then to prepare for an entire WNBA season and, just from observing the end of practice, she moved much better.
Now it's time to sharpen the skills that made her one of the better players in the league. What better way than to do that against its best players? They are all talented. They are all competitive, even in practices.
A big part of holding minicamps like the one this week is the chance for teams to start developing chemistry that will get them through tournaments. Several players spent the offseason playing overseas, so their skills are sharp. Collier is not there yet, but getting on the floor with top talent this week will allow her to slingshot into preseason work for the coming WNBA season.
On a team in transition following Fowles' retirement, the Lynx will need her to be at full throttle.
"I'm super excited to see her this week, back with USA basketball," Reeve said. "I know she's missed it terribly."
Lynx fans should be encouraged to read those comments about the two-time All-Star who averaged 16.2 points game in 2021 before deciding to take on the bigger challenge of starting a family. In late May, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Mila, making 2022 a success even if she had never shot a basketball. With that squared away Collier, 26, is ready to return to the court and help the Lynx rebound from a 14-22 season.
Collier is a WNBA player. And a mom. And she's about to show how to excel at both.
"We had a chat in the weight room and I said, 'You are going to have a big year,' " Taurasi said. "You can just tell she's in great shape, beautiful family. When all those things are in line, Phee is going to have a big year. I think everyone expects that."