Napheesa Collier didn't want to 'be a liability' in her Lynx debut, instead nearly broke rookie record

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/wnba/players/6023/" data-ylk="slk:Napheesa Collier">Napheesa Collier</a> joined <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/wnba/players/4395/" data-ylk="slk:Candace Parker">Candace Parker</a> as the two most prolific rookie scoring debuts in WNBA history. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Napheesa Collier joined Candace Parker as the two most prolific rookie scoring debuts in WNBA history. (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Minnesota Lynx came into the season opener in an odd spot. Their two superstars were gone and the dynasty was likely on its last legs.

Napheesa Collier and Jessica Shepard, battling against each other for an NCAA championship two months ago, are saying not so fast. They proved pivotal in a 89-71 victory over the Chicago Sky — who have fellow rookie Katie Lou Samuelson — at Target Center in Minneapolis on Saturday and joined elite status.

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Collier scores 2nd-most points in debut

Collier scored 27 points with six rebounds and three blocks during her first professional game. It’s the second-most points in a rookie debut in the league’s 23-year history.

Candace Parker holds the record with 34 points, set 11 years ago to the day Sunday. She had 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block. Parker’s Los Angeles Sparks open their season Sunday night against the Las Vegas Aces.

Collier got the start because eighth-year veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly, who the Lynx acquired in free agency, was scratched due to injury.

“I think I just realized tonight that I was starting, the team was counting on me. I needed to go out there and play as aggressively as I can, so I wouldn’t be a liability for the team,” Collier said. “I just tried to go out there and play as hard as I could.”

Collier, the sixth pick in the draft, dominated the highlight reel beyond the points with a dirty block and her teammates cooling her off during a timeout. She went 8 of 10 from the floor, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. Eight of her points came from 11 points to the free throw line.

Samuelson, the other half of UConn’s most prolific duo, lined up across from Collier for the first time and had four points, two assists and one rebound over 18 minutes off the bench.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma told the Hartford Courant before the WNBA season kicked off it’s the same change for both Collier and Samuelson as it was four years ago.

“I think that they can probably think back to when they were freshmen in college and remember how everything was like ‘Wow, I didn’t realize it was going to be like this.’ I think they’re going to have one of those summers, but the only difference is they have a lot more experience. They’re a lot smarter and much better prepared to handle all of this. They both went to the absolute perfect teams for them so I’m excited for both of them.”

Shepard pulls down record rebounds

While Collier pushed up the score, former Notre Dame nemesis Jessica Shepard gave her continuous opportunities. Shepard, the 16th overall pick, had a game-high 13 rebounds, the most in a debut since 2004 when DeTrina White had 13.

Shepard came off the bench to play 27 minutes, third-most on the Lynx, and did most of her damage outside of the box score.

All five of Notre Dame’s 2019 draft picks are on rosters, an immense accomplishment given how difficult it is to break into the WNBA. Shepard helped the Irish to the 2018 national championship.

Why it’s important for the Lynx

The four-time WNBA champions came into 2019 with two key names missing. Lindsay Whalen retired to focus on her head coaching job at the University of Minnesota and Maya Moore is taking a leave to focus on her family and ministry.

The duo led the Lynx to six Western Conference titles and four championships between 2011 and 2017. The team is also without 13-year veteran Seimone Augustus in the short-term as she joins Christmas-Kelly in dealing with injuries.

A stellar debut does not mean a stellar season, but it’s a good sign for the hardcore fans in Minnesota. And a grimacing one for the other teams in the league who thought this might be the time the Lynx fall. It is the year for a title in their every-other-year pattern though we don’t think 34-0 is on the horizon.

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