Napheesa Collier made her 2022 WNBA season debut on Sunday in the Minnesota Lynx's 81-71 win over the visiting Atlanta Dream, less than three months after giving birth to her daughter, Mila, in late May.
Collier started and played 21 minutes in her return, finishing with six points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block.
"She's got to catch up with the speed of the game and as things are happening, but that's probably about as successful as I thought it could be, playing probably a bit longer than what we initially thought," Lynx head coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve said.
Collier, the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year and a former All-WNBA second team selection, returned to the hardwood as the Lynx make a late push to clinch a playoff berth. Sunday's victory moved them within one game of a playoff spot with three regular-season contests remaining. Minnesota is currently in 10th place and one of six teams that could secure the three remaining spots in the postseason.
Collier, 25, had indicated during her pregnancy that she hoped to return at some point this summer to play alongside teammate and friend Sylvia Fowles, before Fowles' impending retirement following the 2022 campaign.
The former UConn standout and 2020 Olympian averaged a team-high 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in 2021, her third season in the league. Collier signed a multiyear contract extension with the Lynx in the offseason that will keep her in Minnesota through 2025.
Reeve said Collier, who had mostly scrimmaged with practice players leading up to Sunday's contest, decided to take the court this weekend after it became clear that teammate Aerial Powers would miss Sunday's game -- a high-stakes matchup against the similarly postseason-hunting Dream -- with a sore knee.
Collier said she felt physically ready to go and that the only thing holding her back was "some nerves." Though she said she felt a little winded during the game after playing twice as long as she was initially expected to, she assessed the outing as a "good first game" back.
Reeve also was generally pleased with Collier's overall activity on both ends of the floor.
"I was really excited," Collier said while holding Mila on her lap postgame. "Obviously, there's some nerves coming in, especially this late in the season and trying to get back here and rush to do everything. But it felt so good to hear my name called and have the fans cheer for me. It was a really good feeling. So I'm really glad I played tonight."
She might not have put up flashy stats in her first appearance of the summer, but Collier demonstrated much of what she does best: the little things that help her team win.
"Her energy, her movement, it just creates easier things for other people, and her length defensively is pretty helpful," Reeve said.
The Lynx went 12-20 without Collier while hit with a slew of injuries to various other players dating back to the preseason, so to have their franchise cornerstone back out there felt like "a bit of an out-of-body experience" to Reeve.
"She's like a security blanket for everybody," the coach added.
The Lynx and Collier close out the regular season with away matchups versus the Phoenix Mercury on Wednesday and the Connecticut Sun on Sunday sandwiching a final home game on Friday against the Seattle Storm.
"Each time she plays, she's going to get more comfortable," Reeve said. "A lot of plays, she doesn't know. She's got to get up to speed on everything we're running. And then we also have to get to where we can feature her."