Kia Nurse and Napheesa Collier, both All-Stars for the first time in 2019, are leading a new generation of UConn greats in the WNBA.
For former University of Connecticut stars in the WNBA, college was about the pursuit of perfection. Most Huskies began their professional careers as leaders, their success as amateurs shocking even to veteran teammates, many of whom fell as students to the juggernaut that is Husky basketball. Heading into the 2019 WNBA playoffs, a new generation of Huskies-turned-pros are stepping to the forefront of the league’s elite.
The identity of the UConn women’s basketball program comes from head coach Geno Auriemma’s hunger for execution, over and over, until all that’s left is to take home a trophy. Led by Auriemma and longtime assistant Chris Dailey, UConn has won 11 of the past 25 NCAA titles. Regular awards and tiny victories hardly faze these women.
Stars from UConn win multiple WNBA titles. They dominate the first round of the draft. They’ve earned four of the past nine MVP awards. Excellence for them looks like Breanna Stewart, leader of the Husky squad that won four consecutive championships, became league MVP, WNBA champion, Finals MVP, FIBA gold medalist and World Cup MVP. But as Stewart recovers from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in the offseason, a few new Husky stars have added to the legacy.
As two-time NCAA champion and 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles peered down the line of All-Stars walking down the orange carpet in Las Vegas this summer, it hit her. Charles was drafted in 2010, part of the third generation connecting UConn to the WNBA. Seeing younger peers like Kia Nurse and Napheesa Collier, Charles felt an even greater appreciation for the lineage of the university.
Whereas in the past, Charles was the baby sister in those moments, she is now the vet, especially when it comes to leading Nurse, her teammate with the New York Liberty. “It’s just a reminder of the greats at UConn and what they’re able to do with their players,” Charles says.
When Charles looked down that line, the players she didn’t see probably shocked her even more. Former Husky greats Stewart, Sue Bird and Maya Moore did not play in 2019. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, Diana Taurasi, missed the majority of the year recovering from preseason injuries. In a twist of fate, Collier and Nurse, both first-time All-Stars, settled into spots typically occupied by their UConn peers.
“It’s pretty amazing what we’ve been able to do as a school, and translating to the WNBA, that’s one thing we take a lot of pride in is coming into the WNBA ready to play,” says Taurasi. “Those two are just going to carry the reigns.”
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Nurse, a versatile shooter and candidate for Most Improved Player in addition to her first All-Star appearance, sighs when she hears the awards listed like that. She also won two titles at UConn, but won’t admit she’s anything better than average right now — far from where she wants to be as a pro. “I’m an OK basketball player,” Nurse says, putting it lightly. She hasn’t made the WNBA playoffs yet and is trying to take the Canadian National Team to new heights, challenging herself to lead in a way she didn’t have to at school while still striving for the same level of success she found in northeastern Connecticut.
“Everybody knows when you come from UConn, there’s a sisterhood and there’s a camaraderie,” she says, “but UConn is UConn. Everybody’s always like talking about college and I’m like, ‘I’m done with college, I’m out of it, that’s way behind me.’”
Missing the playoffs in her first two seasons doesn’t weigh well on Nurse’s psyche, but Charles sees Nurse as a breath of fresh air on a changing Liberty team. The UConn legacy is in Nurse’s hands now, and soon the Liberty will be, too.
“Any wins that we have are because of her,” Charles says. “Any games that we were in or it was close was because of her, so I’m definitely happy for her and the experience that she was able to have today.”
Nurse wasn’t in the spotlight at UConn, ceding scoring and playmaking duties to Collier and others. Auriemma stationed Nurse as a floor-spacer more often than not, which may be why fell to No. 10 in the 2018 draft, behind teammate Gabby Williams, while Collier went sixth this year.
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Collier has had more success than Nurse, helping to lead a playoff push for the Minnesota Lynx. “We stole one in the draft with her,” says teammate Odyssey Sims. In addition to a larger total in the win column, Collier is also a leading candidate for WNBA Rookie of the Year, and an All-Star as an injury replacement in her first season.
Acknowledging success comes easier for Collier than Nurse. She was part of a successful roster overhaul this summer for Minnesota, which brought back just three pieces from its 2018 roster.
“For all those things, I think we’ve done really well,” Collier says. “We’ve done our best to try to gel and make the best of our situation.”
The Lynx have won four of the past nine WNBA titles, setting another high bar Collier will have a tough time reaching. Minnesota has to feel more like UConn to Collier than the rebuilding environment Nurse was thrown into. Still, nothing comes easy in the WNBA playoffs. The Lynx face two single-elimination games before they can even think about a home game this postseason.
Collier admits the pressure of annual NCAA championship bids helped prepare her for the pressure cooker that is the WNBA playoffs. “(Auriemma and Dailey have) created a legacy, and you can see their work playing out here,” Collier says. “That school’s done so much for all of us and I know that we’re all so happy that we can be a part of their legacy.” Each fall, that legacy is hashed out in the flash fryer that is the league’s postseason.
UConn’s tentacles are everywhere. Next year, Collier can look forward to the possible return of Moore, leader of those four Lynx championship teams, who sat out the year to dedicate more time to her Christian faith. Bird, Stewart and Taurasi will be leading contending teams again. All-Star spots will be harder to come by, and Collier can’t count on another playoff berth. That sweet first taste of the postseason may still be out of reach.
But both young former Huskies are dedicated leaders of the next generation among a legendary group. Astronomical, irrational expectations welcomed them onto campus as freshmen, and when being perfect is the only thing left to achieve, getting better is like punching a clock. The job is the job.
Says Nurse: “It’s nice to see Connecticut players across the league, and it’s a testament to what (Dailey) and coach have built over the last 30 years, but it’s also different now. Every time you get on the court with one of your good friends, it’s kind of awkward because you want them to lose and you want to win.”