Lynx have shown Cheryl Reeve 'everything she would want in a team'

How Minnesota reached the halfway point with an 8-3 record

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The Lynx have relied on resilience and determined newcomers in their 8-3 start to the 2020 season. Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx Twitter account.

It’s a rare occasion that Cheryl Reeve is at a loss for words. But the rarity occurred on Wednesday night.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Reeve after her Lynx team came back from a 15-point deficit to defeat the Dallas Wings on Wednesday night. “I can’t even express how happy I am.”

Halfway through the 2020 WNBA season, the 8-3 Lynx are tied for the third-best record in the league despite their roster being withered by injuries — including a lingering calf injury that has sidelined center Sylvia Fowles indefinitely.

Of course, Minnesota isn’t the only team that has faced adversity this season. But the Lynx’s response to unexpected challenges has stood out and has once again reminded us to never count out Minnesota.

“I saw signs of it in terms of toughness from the group in training camp,” Reeve said. “You don’t know necessarily how it’s going to translate in games or wins and losses, but this is a group that I felt was built to handle some adversity.”

Resilience showed itself throughout the Lynx’s offseason and training camp and has only flourished in the first half of the Lynx’s 2020 season.

Poised rookies

I was confused on draft night.

I saw a fiery yet composed, confident point guard in UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield and was perplexed as her name failed to be called after the first 15 selections. I had predicted the Lynx would use their No. 6 pick to take Dangerfield, how could she fall to No. 16?

I’m not the only one who’s revisited that question as of late.

Dangerfield has turned the heads and won the hearts of most WNBA fans as she’s proven she’s capable of being much more than a bench project in her first 11 WNBA games.

The rookie point guard is currently averaging 28.7 minutes, 14.3 points and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 47.5% from the field and 38.0% from 3-point range. She attempts the second-most field goals (10.7) on the Lynx team just after co-captain Napheesa Collier (11.1) and has created 35 of her 56 made field goals on her own.

Despite her 5’5 stature, Dangerfield has connected on 18 of her 30 shots taken less than five feet from the basket, and because of her height, she’s forced herself to get comfortable with shooting from the beyond 25-feet-range where she’s shooting 39.4% (sixth-best percentage in the league).

“In the case of Crystal Dangerfield, there’s a level of toughness there that … Geno (Auriemma) and I didn’t talk about that,” said Reeve, searching for the right words again. “I didn’t necessarily know how tough she was, how mentally and physically tough she is.

“Crystal is just … as they say, she’s got a lot of dog in her. That’s the highest compliment you can give a player.”

I’d like to say “I told you so” about draft night, but again, I was confused that night.

My former boss Kyle Ratke and I wrote 40 prospect profiles before the draft when we were still employed by the Lynx. Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan wasn’t featured in our 2020 Draft Central.

Come draft night, Kyle and I were scrambling to learn about this scrawny yet overpowering forward the Lynx used their sixth overall pick on. Would her defensive dominance transfer over to the pros once she was tasked to guard bigger, stronger players? And how would the Lynx tame “Mad Kiki” whom even Reeve deemed a “surprising pick” on draft night?

Herbert Harrigan’s rookie season hasn’t earned her as much spotlight as Dangerfield so far, but she’s shown the same shades of poise and potential as her fellow rookie.

Herbert Harrigan didn’t earn any playing time in the Lynx’s season debut after a slow start in training camp but hasn’t allowed one DNP to impact what she does on the court ever since.

The rookie forward is averaging 11.8 minutes, 4.3 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in her first 10 WNBA games, but most importantly, she’s been a force on the defensive end.

Her 6’2 frame hasn’t limited her defensive abilities in the pros, it’s proven to be rather versatile.

Herbert Harrigan can not only defend opposing power and small forwards, she’s also been assigned to opposing point guards in crunch time. (Remember Courtney Vandersloot’s two missed shots in crunch time of Minnesota’s 83-81 win over Chicago on July 30?)

We have yet to see the explosive Kiki who unleashes game-stopping blocks before riling up fans and teammates, but she’s attentive and rather calculated on the defensive end where she isn’t prone to committing fouls (unlike some of her teammates).

Herbert Harrigan boasts the best net rating (6.1) on the Lynx, an incredible 76.6 defensive rating and is submitting a resume to become a stretch 4 after hitting seven of her first 14 professional 3-point attempts.

“We felt like this was going to be a process with Kiki,” Reeve said. “Maybe the minutes wouldn’t be there. We knew there was going to be a level of green in her as a rookie who had so much to learn, but I can’t say that I think that it could have gone any better in terms of her listening to Rebekkah (Brunson) and Plenette (Pierson) and just her teammates that are behind her.”

Herbert Harrigan compares this learning period to the one she experienced as a freshman at South Carolina when she played behind Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson.

“I’m just staying confident and being ready when my number is called,” Herbert Harrigan said. “I knew coming into my rookie season I’m playing behind a Hall of Fame coach and great players, so just learning and soaking everything in and try to learn as much as possible.”

“We just do well with players who have a level of toughness or edginess,” Reeve said. “Kiki certainly fits that bill, and obviously Crystal has shown that she does as well.”

Again, never underestimate general manager Reeve in the war room.

Roster compilation

But the rookies aren’t the only Lynx players who’ve shown resilience this season.

We’ve seen 20-plus-point nights from Bridget Carleton and Lexie Brown, third-quarter bust-outs from Shenise Johnson and Erica McCall — all players who’ve played less than two full seasons with the Lynx.

So what is it about this team that allows newcomers to thrive under adverse, ever-changing circumstances?

“I hope it’s a culture of the type of people that you select to be a part of your franchise,” Reeve said. “That’s certainly what we think it is — that you get players that understand how hard you have to play to be successful. You don’t have to do difficult things. It’s doing simple things very well. You get players who understand that, who’re good basketball players, and that’s what we think we’ve got with this group.”

The Lynx didn’t land any premiere All-Stars in free agency but welcomed in players who’re determined to serve their roles — no matter how big or how small — for the greater good of the team, rather than to earn some personal spotlight.

“There are just certain things we value in players,” Reeve said. “We may not have the headline-grabbing names of players, but we’re finding a way collectively that if we buy into certain things — and I’ve always said that those certain things are defending and rebounding — it gives you a chance to win every game. We’ve got players who believe in that.”

Crediting Collier

All right, I’ll admit it. I, too, was guilty of worrying about Napheesa Collier’s prolonged search for her offensive rhythm at the start of this season.

Collier (rightfully) garnered loads of media attention after her breakout rookie season and quickly became a franchise player for a team looking to replace its former core four of Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen. So, it makes some sense that expectations were set high early on. Plus, Collier’s unfaltering confidence could have influenced our thinking that she’d start right where she left off in September.

But let’s not forget: she’s a second-year player playing in the most competitive league in the world. Not to mention, she’s been subject to comparisons to Moore throughout her career — comparisons that less-capable players would likely collapse under.

But Collier doesn’t care whether she’s under- or overrated, compared or contrasted. She knows the player she is, and it’s time we stop taking her maturation for granted.

Collier is leading the Lynx in minutes (32.4), points (15.2), free-throw attempts (4.1) and is second in rebounds and steals and boasts an impressive on/off differential of plus-9.46.

In the three games the Lynx have played since Fowles’ injury, Collier is averaging 21.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 59.5% from the field and 75.0% from 3-point range (on 2.0 3PAs per game).

She stacks up pretty well against her opponents, too.

(Disclaimer: This tweet is from Collier’s fiancé but that shouldn’t diminish its significance.)

Collier was named a co-captain at the start of the season, and the honor was a big deal at the time given her newness to the league. Now, without fellow co-captain Karima Christmas-Kelly who’s rehabbing her Achilles injury offsite and Fowles whose co-captain duties are limited to off-court mentorship, Collier’s responsibility to lead her team through their remaining games of the regular season becomes even more daunting. Well, that’s the perception for those of us who aren’t compared to Maya Moore monthly, at least.

But as for Collier, she knows what she and her teammates are capable of.

“I didn’t come in here saying we had to have a certain record by a certain time,” Collier said. “But I knew what our team was capable of. We do have a lot of new people, but we knew from the beginning that our chemistry was really good and we have people who’ve bought into our program. That’s one of the most important things, having people who are going to show up every day and work as hard as they can. We have that on our team. So I’m not surprised that we’re doing this well.”

With 11 games under their belt, the Lynx have shown their chemistry and resilience aren’t just training camp fads. They’re still Minnesota Lynx staples.

“Resilient, tough, everything that you would want in a team,” Reeve said. “They stay together.”

That’s all the words Reeve needs.

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