Collier’s unique Rookie of the Year race was all in the plan

Sam Wasson/Getty Images photo.
Sam Wasson/Getty Images photo.

If anyone didn’t see Napheesa Collier as one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year at the end of this WNBA season, it wasn’t the former UConn standout.

“(Rookie of the Year) was the goal I set for myself in the beginning of the year,” Collier said. “It’s something I’ve worked towards this entire season. So it’d definitely be really important to me.”

The Minnesota Lynx selected Collier with their No. 6 draft pick, while the other contender in what has become a hot ROY race is the Dallas Wings’ No. 5 choice, Arike Ogunbowale. Whomever wins the race will become the lowest draft pick to do so since Temeka Johnson, who went No. 6 to the Washington Mystics before her 2005 rookie season.

A compelling case can be made for both players. Many of Ogunbowale’s backers laud her scoring (rookie-best 18.5 points per game) and lack of a supporting cast around her. Collier scores 12.9 points a night, but her edge stands in a more balanced game over Ogunbowale in rebounds (6.5 to 2.4), steals (1.9 to 1.0) and blocks (0.9 to 0.0).

Ogunbowale is asked to shoot more, firing off 511 attempts this season (to Collier’s 320). Collier has made the most of her looks, though, owning a 48.4 shooting percentage (to Ogunbowale’s 38.6).

“I would say my all-around game and my efficiency (give me an edge),” Collier said. “I think I affect the game in a lot more areas than just points, and I don’t need as many shots to do it.”

Minnesota’s public relations staff has made campaigning for Collier a collaborative effort. They bring multiple departments together and add to the hype that picks up the most steam, largely through social media. (This year, that also includes plugging Odyssey Sims as the Most Improved Player of the year.)

But Collier’s teammates have been equally as passionate on her behalf, even if they feel like they shouldn’t have to be.

“I don’t even know why we need to campaign for Phee. I think it’s pretty obvious,” said forward Seimone Augustus, who was the 2006 ROY. “And it’s no disrespect to Arike, she’s had an amazing season, well half a season. She started off a little rough at the beginning and then picked it up. But when we talk about a body of work, from start to finish, Phee has been consistent throughout the entire year.”

Coach Cheryl Reeve said Collier’s balanced game makes her the best candidate.

“I’d like to (give Collier the award),” Reeve said. “(She is) just the second rookie ever to compile 400 points, 200 rebounds and 60 steals. And the other player is Tamika Catchings. As I told her, that’s just tremendous company. … Phee just continues to be the best overall rookie in this league.”

Augustus, who went No. 1 before Cappie Pondexter went No. 2 to Phoenix, said overall team records make a difference. The 18-15 Lynx are headed to the postseason, while the Wings have struggled to a 10-23 record going into the regular-season finale.

“It was fun, obviously, to compete with the other rookie you were going against and seeing what they were doing, checking the stat lines and things like that,” Augustus said of her race with Pondexter. “But our competition was way different from (Collier’s) because neither one of us (reached the postseason). Phee’s in the playoffs, Arike is not. Phee’s got the quality body of work, Arike’s scoring the basketball.”

One thing is for certain: No matter who wins, somebody is getting robbed. So Collier’s teammates have done all they can to ensure it’s not her.

“It’s been amazing. I’m supported so much with them. They’re singing it every day,” Collier said. “They’ve been my biggest supporters, absolutely. My biggest advocates.”

She is grateful to have landed in Minnesota.

“I think it’s special (here). We’re a really close team,” she said. “We genuinely want the best for each other. I think that’s really hard to come by, that you recognize that, in order for the team to be great, individuals have to be great, as well. We support each other through that.”