U.S. WOMEN’S BASKETBALL UConn’s Collier busy learning from veteran players
TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Dawn Staley has posed the question to collegians countless times in her distinguished career as a coach. It is one that most, if not all, answer with an unequivocal head nod.
“All of my players,” said Staley, the head women’s basketball coach at South Carolina, “I ask if they want to play in the WNBA. They all [answer similarly]. That’s an easier question to answer presently. But to actually see a [professional] practice and go through a practice, that’s a lot different.
“And then to have staying power, that’s a huge gap.”
Players are not only stronger and quicker in the WNBA than they are in college, but they also tend to operate with more precision — even when they don’t have the ball in their hands.
Just ask Napheesa Collier, who is in midst of learning these lessons as she comes up on her senior season at UConn.
Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward, was one of only two college players — with Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu being the other — to make the latest cut for the U.S. women’s national team. The roster is currently at 15 players, and will be whittled to 12 when the team heads to Tenerife, Spain, later this month for the FIBA World Cup.
“Even at UConn, we’re a transition team. We go up and down the court,” Collier said Friday, a day before the team’s scheduled exhibition game against Kia Nurse and Canada at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. “This is a step above that, how fast-paced the game is.”
At the moment, Collier finds herself sharing the floor with three former Huskies — Morgan Tuck, Stefanie Dolson and Tina Charles, a two-time Olympic and two-time World Cup gold medalist — and the last two No. 1 picks: Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson. She might soon be joined by Sure Bird, Elena Della Donne, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi, thus adding to the team’s star power.
Dolson, who was drafted sixth overall out of UConn in 2014, has been a valuable sounding board, helping Collier get up to speed with the nuances of the professional game.
“Coming out of college, there’s so much you have to learn when you play with pros,” Dolson said. “One of the things I’m trying to teach her is basically slowing down a bit. You know, we’re faster up and down the court than college, but when you’re playing you want to go a little slower. Everyone’s really good at everything.
“In college, you’re used to cut, cut, cut, cut — you don’t stop moving. I’m just trying to help her, especially when she’s playing with me, to not cut as much or as quickly because of spacing.”
Collier has proven to be an effective offensive player in college. She averaged 16.1 points last season, cracking double figures in 33 of UConn’s 37 games. She also shot just under 60 percent from the floor, and was a third team AP All-American.
And the intangibles? Some say she has those down as well.
“These guys joke all the time, ‘Oh, yes, she’s a UConn player,’ because she’s complete,” said former UConn star Jennifer Rizzotti, an assistant with Team USA. “She busts her butt on defense, she’ll run the floor for days. She does a lot of the intangible things, it’s just not about her skill level. It’s about the fact that she’s going to do all the little things.”
Added Staley, the head coach of Team USA: “She plays at a high level. I had the honor of coaching her in the U-18s, U-19s a couple years ago. She’s pretty much the same player, but she’s a lot more efficient. I think she understands it a lot more. She brings people up to her level as far as how hard she plays, her unselfishness, and her ability to just be relentless out there on the court.”
Collier, who won a gold medal at the 2015 FIBA U-19 World Championship, is soaking this experience in. Every step of the way Collier’s carried with her the advice of her college coach, Geno Auriemma, who told her to “make them feel like they need to keep you.”
So far, she has.
“I’m taking this [experience] back to my team,” Collier said. “The level of physicality, the pace of it, how people see the floor differently … if we can get that down, then there’s really no one who could beat us.”