Minnesota Lynx's Napheesa Collier ready for Connecticut 'homecoming'

Rookie Napheesa Collier has had a chance to make an immediate impact in Minnesota. On Saturday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET), the UConn star returns to Connecticut. Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Napheesa Collier might be a WNBA rookie, but she joined the Minnesota Lynx already an expert in shouldering extremely high expectations.

When she and the Lynx face the Connecticut Sun on Saturday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET) at Mohegan Sun Arena, Collier will be welcomed back as all former UConn Huskies are, especially when making their first return. The fans will see a player they knew would make the adjustment to the pro game. They watched that maturation during her four years in Storrs, Connecticut.

"It is nice, especially because it's at Mohegan, somewhere I played so many times in college," said Collier, who is averaging 11.7 points and 5.8 rebounds through 13 games this season. "It's going to be great to go back there and see all the Connecticut people. I think it's going to be really fun."

But if you know Collier as the UConn faithful do, you also know the homecoming won't be a distraction for her. That's not how she's wired. Sometimes it seemed to bug UConn coach Geno Auriemma that Collier was almost too even-keel -- like he wanted her to unleash a little more fire.

Yet by her senior season, Auriemma had come to truly appreciate Collier for who she was: a relentless hard worker who had that drive inside of her, even if it didn't show on her face or in her body language.

Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve witnessed all that, watching how Collier played with the Huskies but also during her time training with the U.S. national team. She saw the 6-foot-1 Collier as a player who could do many things well and be comfortable at either forward spot.

When Collier was still available at No. 6, where the Lynx picked in April's WNBA draft, Minnesota had exactly the player it wanted. And it was what Collier wanted, too.

She wasn't caught up in why five players -- including UConn teammate and close friend Katie Lou Samuelson -- were drafted ahead of her. She wasn't worried that she was perhaps being underestimated, as many UConn followers felt she was while in college.

Having an opportunity with an organization accustomed to winning and maintaining high standards mattered to Collier.

"It's a perfect fit for me as a person and as a player," Collier said, "because of what this team is and what it represents and the people on it."

That said, if anyone would calmly take in stride that her new home didn't completely match the brochure, it's Collier. She knew how much the Lynx had achieved over the previous eight seasons, with four WNBA titles and two other trips to the WNBA Finals. But much of the core of those championship teams isn't playing in 2019.

Lindsay Whalen is retired from playing and now the Minnesota Gophers' coach. Maya Moore is on a sabbatical from basketball and working on social justice issues. Seimone Augustus is on the roster, but she's not playing yet after knee surgery. Rebekkah Brunson, dealing with lingering concussion symptoms, isn't on the roster.

Sylvia Fowles is still at the center of Minnesota's attack, averaging 14.4 points and 9.5 rebounds. But these are the new-look Lynx, including guard Odyssey Sims, who in her first season with the Lynx leads them in scoring at 15.8. Collier has started every game and leads the team in minutes played (32.9 per game). She also ranks third in scoring, second in rebounding and first in steals (1.9 per game).

"Obviously, you've heard what the Lynx were before," Collier said of her mindset coming in as a rookie. "But this is a different team, and this is the only thing I've experienced with them, so in that way it was probably easier for me.

"It's just trying to make the best of that, learn from players who were already here, learn the culture and the expectations that the Lynx have, and keep that up as much as we can."

Collier made a tremendous first impression, scoring 27 points in the Lynx's opener, second most for any rookie debut in league history. Minnesota beat Chicago 89-71, and Collier enjoyed it while still keeping it in perspective.

"It definitely did feel good, but I knew I wouldn't be able to score 27 every night, much as I'd like to," she said. "But it's great to start the season like that, especially playing against one of my best friends in Katie Lou; it was just a fun night overall. It was a great start for me and something I'll never forget."

Since, the Lynx have experienced the ups and downs that are common in the WNBA, especially when a team is dealing with the amount of injuries Minnesota has. The Lynx have lost veteran Karima Christmas-Kelly (knee) and rookie Jessica Shepard (ACL tear) for the season. Another forward, Damiris Dantas, is out for possibly a couple of weeks with a calf injury. All of the injuries have put even more of a load on Collier, but she has embraced that.

The Lynx won four of their first five. Then came a four-game losing streak, with three of those losses at home. Now the Lynx have won three of their past four, and are irritated with the one that got away, 89-86 at Dallas on Sunday when they lost a 14-point lead.

There's little time to fret in the WNBA, though, and Collier already understands that, too. The Lynx came back to beat Atlanta 85-68 on Tuesday, with Collier getting six points and a season-best 11 rebounds. Another young forward, Stephanie Talbot, had her best game thus far with a career-high 24 points against the Dream. Talbot, 25, was traded to Minnesota from Phoenix in May.

"There are so many games in a short amount of time, and you don't have time to stew over a bad game," Collier said. "You have to move on to the next game. The good thing is you can redeem yourself quickly."

When -- or even if -- Collier's fellow former UConn star Moore will return to the WNBA is unknown. Augustus, 35, has said 2020 likely will be her last season. Fowles is 33. So even though Collier has only just begun, it seems likely she's going to be a big part of the Lynx's future.

"I am confident in who I am as a player," she said. "And everything happens for a reason. I wouldn't want to be on any other team than this one."