CHARLI COLLIER’S PATH In the driveway of her family’s home in Crosby, a suburb of Houston, the suspected number 1 on this week’s WNBA draft began taping tape where her feet would go.
“I knew basketball, so you didn’t want to just play basketball in any way,” said her mother, Ponda, who played at Southwestern University and later coached Collier’s first team. “She learned how to shoot when she was 5.”
Her late father, Elliott, also knew a lot about basketball. He never made his high school team, just kept grinding, eventually moving on in the state of Montana where his brother played, and ending up with a starter. With young Charli, 6-foot-8 Elliott made sure she had to figure out how to get around him. He’d like to block a shot.
“It was all out of love, but definitely very competitive,” said Collier of 2v2 family games with her younger brother Casey. “If you don’t know us well, you’d think we’re fighting or arguing, but that’s exactly how we worked.”
When Elliott died of lung and liver cancer in April 2016, he left Charli with a work ethic and confidence that defined her journey. A month after his death, Collier took part in a test for the United States Under-17 national team, along with some of the nation’s best young prospects – a trip Elliott had once insisted on, regardless of his condition.
“I had the best rehearsal of my life,” said Collier. “I just remember just walking. All the top players were in this gym and picked me. It had a lot to do with my father because I was so passionate about it.”
The tryout changed the way Collier saw her future in the game.
“I’ve done some things that surprised myself that I didn’t know I could do,” she said. “I felt like that got me to be where I am now. I was good, but then and there I knew, OK, we’re going to take this to the next level.”
Her father had always told her no one could stop her, but that moment was a realization he was right. He’d also always told her to be number 1 on the WNBA draft. This Thursday (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN app), Elliott Collier can again be proven correct when the Dallas Wings make the first pick.
Despite her father’s extreme trust, Collier’s path to that moment never felt predetermined. She was rightly surprised to find herself on the WNBA’s radar last year. She also endured many moments of uncertainty, including an abrupt decision to bypass her dream of playing at UConn in order to stay closer to her grieving family by playing in Texas. She endured mounting pain on the pitch, a change of coach and a global pandemic that shortened a season. Just last month she was scrutinized for battling top competition in the NCAA tournament.
“She wants to be great,” said former Longhorns trainer Karen Aston, who offered Collier a scholarship before reaching eighth grade. “She wants to please. That probably comes from her father’s stress and the desire to do well. Some of it is just her DNA and who she is. I think that sometimes Charli just has to take a deep breath and realize that everything is going well be. “
At 21, Collier is able to fulfill her father’s dream for her thanks to the lessons he and his wife taught.
“I really feel like this is my whole life’s testimony,” said Collier. “I’m definitely resilient. Just make it work, you know?”
WHILE HAD COLLIER She accepted Aston’s first Texas scholarship offer and attempted to resume her recruitment through the end of her freshman year. In doing so, she became one of the most desirable prospects in the nation.
UConn trainer Geno Auriemma invited her along with some other top recruits for men and women to the program’s loud “First Night” celebration in October 2016. Seven months after her father’s death, Collier was the huskies’ first engagement in the 2018 recruitment class.
Later that year, Ponda, a math teacher with a master’s degree in education and leadership, said she noticed a change in her daughter. She would just come home and go straight to her room with no normal conversation. In September 2017, she came into her mother’s classroom and said she had not yet thought she could leave the family.
“My daughter had lost her father. Casey was still in high school, in ninth grade. And to be honest, he didn’t want her to go either,” Ponda said. “Sure, we all clung to each other.”
They called Auriemma who was extremely supportive. The next call was to Aston to tell her that Collier was coming to Texas after all.
“”[Elliott’s death] was life changing for her, “said Aston,” so she just took one shot. “
Collier only started one game as a freshman, but by the sophomore year she was an all-big-12 first-team center averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, including a 20 point performance and 19 rebounds in a No. 1 Stanford.
Just as things were getting better, the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then Texas sporting director Chris Del Conte decided not to renew Aston’s contract and changed hopes of bridging the growing gap between the Longhorns and Baylor.
For Collier, the combination of the loss of her coach and the abrupt end of the season had to be processed.
COLLIER wasn’t sure what would come next. After Aston left, she considered the transfer portal, but Ponda made it clear that she had to finish what she had started. So the answer was to get to work. Back home, Charli and Casey, now a 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive machine at USC, turned their garage into a gym, hired coaches, and got into the best shape of their lives.
Collier didn’t consider signing up for the 2021 draft, largely because WNBA rules require players to either drop out of high school for four years, turn 22 the same year as the draft, or graduate four years . Although Collier always planned to graduate in three years, the plan was to get a Masters degree while playing college basketball, rather than speeding up her ability to enter the draft.
When Collier’s trainer was training in her garage one day last year, he showed her a 2021 WNBA draft on his phone that put her 8th overall. The realization that others viewed her as a potential draft pick stunned Collier and prompted her to reconsider her plans.
“I think what did you see? You see potential in my head,” said Collier. “I’m not even where I’m supposed to be. So what happens when I put all the pieces together?”
Collier had already worked in Texas for two more years to prepare. Now she thought about a career earlier than she thought possible while preparing for the unexpected with a new coach. When Vic Schaefer, a native of Texas who made the state of Mississippi a powerhouse, arrived in Austin as a coach, he immediately saw that her focus was coming from lockdown training.
“I just found a kid who absolutely had a monster engine,” he said. “You have to love a child like that.”
For much of the season, Collier carried the cargo for the Longhorns while their perimeter offensive took hold. She had 19 doubles doubles, was the second best in the NCAA that season, averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds per game. In a November game against North Texas, she had 44 points on 14-of-17 shooting, adding 16 rebounds and two blocks. It was the highest number of points a Texas player has scored since 1994.
She also fought sometimes. Collier was at the center of every team’s roster – “She’s been greatly doubled and tripled,” Schäfer said – and Baylor was able to keep her at bay with a two-point game in February and a three-point game in March.
“Every team has its strategy and I know a lot of people like to point out that my performance against Baylor is really bad,” said Collier. “Baylor, you have been a national championship team for the past few years and you do a good scouting job and you can take part of the team away. I think at the end of the day these are life lessons for me.”
At the Longhorns NCAA tournament, Collier had more moments reminiscent of her troubles against Baylor. When she played UCLA, she ran into nasty problems and ended up with only five points and four rebounds. After a Sweet 16 surprise against Maryland, in which Collier and the Longhorns kept the Terrapins down to a season low of 61 points, Texas faced a strong squad in South Carolina and the Aliyah Boston All-America Center, one of the top runners in the 2021 belongs to -22 national player of the year. The Longhorns’ offensive stuttered and didn’t score a single point in the fourth quarter en route to a 62:34 defeat. Collier shot just 2 out of 10, finishing with four points and three rebounds.
“She could have had some games that she might have fought in,” said Schäfer. “You know, sometimes it wasn’t just them who fought. Sometimes you just have to honor your opponent. I don’t read too much into it.”
Collier knows she has to work to keep getting better and that if she doesn’t do well, asking if she’s number 1 overall raises questions.
“It’s not that I can’t keep up,” she said, citing a 28-point, 19-rebound performance against Oklahoma-based Natasha Mack, who was named National Defensive Player of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. “I’ve shown all my life that I can compete against the best of the best.”
IN MANY WAYSLast season was a good test run for the Collier professionals.
She was forced to adapt to many changes on the fly, and she credits Schäfer for helping her become a better defensive player and round off her game.
“You have to have a short memory, especially if you want to be a professional,” said Collier. “You definitely can’t have your feelings for anything on your shoulder.”
She also found ways to show off her personality and delve into another dream to work on the radio and host an Instagram live talk show. ((One episode with former Longhorns legend Kevin Durant drew 50,000 views.)
And like Schaefer, WNBA scouts and execs at the forefront of the draft don’t seem overly concerned about Collier’s tournament fights. In ESPN’s most recent draft sample released after the NCAA tournament, Collier retained first place.
With the chance to represent Texas as the top overall winner – which would be a first in school history for its famous women’s basketball program – Collier has the skills to be a dynamic player at the pro level, Schäfer said.
“She can stretch you and shoot the 3,” he said. “She’s good on the go. She gets up a little bit. At 6-5 she has a really unique ability.”
Schaefer nodded to his own experience of playing Collier in a more traditional lead role, although she could shoot from a distance.
“Whoever gets it [will find] If you tell her to do something, she will definitely do it and not turn a blind eye, “he said.” No matter what it is, she’ll do it 100 percent. “
Aston, who is now the head coach at UTSA, said Collier will bring a developed, well-rounded game due to a work ethic that is unusual for beginners.
“Her gun touch is phenomenal to the 3-point line and she has a great touch on the edge and that’s not exactly something that can be taught,” she said. “When you have a player who goes into the pros and already has the ability to get out and peck and pop, do pick and roll action, and chase 3s and shoot, that’s an added bonus. Lots of them Post players have to work on it when they get to the pros. “
As a specialist, she opens a new chapter and can continue to fall back on the example of her parents.
“We weren’t laconic people,” said Ponda. “Whatever we want, we have the drive to just get it.”
Collier sometimes remembers this sample in Colorado Springs just a few months after her father died. How she reacted gives her confidence that she can use the potential that others see and find another gear.
“That day separated me from a lot of people,” she said. “I still shock myself to this day.”