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CHARLI COLLIER’S PATH to becoming the presumptive No. 1 pick in this week’s WNBA draft began in the driveway of her family’s home in the Houston suburb of Crosby, with tape marking the spots where her feet would go.
“I knew basketball, so you weren’t just gonna go shoot the basketball any kind of way,” said her mother, Ponda, who had played at Southwestern University and later coached Collier’s first team. “She was learning at 5 how to shoot.”
Her late father, Elliott, also knew basketball. He never made his high school team but kept grinding, eventually walking on at Montana State, where his brother played, and ending up a starter. With young Charli, the 6-foot-8 Elliott made sure she had to figure out how to get around him. He’d gladly block a shot.
“It was all out of love, but definitely was super-competitive,” Collier said of 2-on-2 family games with her younger brother, Casey. “If you didn’t know us well, you would think that we were fighting or arguing, but that’s just how we worked.”
When Elliott died of lung and liver cancer in April 2016, he left Charli with a work ethic and confidence that has come to define her journey. A month after his death, Collier attended a tryout for the USA Under-17 national team alongside some of the nation’s best young prospects — a trip Elliott had once insisted she go on, no matter his condition.
“I had the best tryout of my life,” Collier said. “I just remember just going off. All the top players were in that gym and they chose me. That had a lot to do with my dad because I had so much passion.”
The tryout reshaped the way Collier viewed her future in the game.
“I did some things I surprised myself with that I didn’t know I could do,” she said. “I felt like that sparked me to be where I am now. I was good, but then and there I knew, OK, we’re gonna take this to the next level.”
Her father had always told her nobody could stop her, but that moment was a realization that he was right. He had also always told her that she was destined to be the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. This Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), Elliott Collier may again be proved correct when the Dallas Wings make the first selection.
Despite her father’s ultra-confidence, Collier’s path to this moment never felt preordained. She was legitimately surprised to find herself on the WNBA’s radar last year. She has also had to push through plenty of moments of uncertainty, including an abrupt decision to bypass her dream of playing at UConn to stay closer to her grieving family by playing at Texas. She endured on-court growing pains, a coaching change and a global pandemic that cut short a season. Just last month, she was scrutinized for struggling against top competition in the NCAA tournament.
“She wants to be great,” said former Longhorns coach Karen Aston, who offered Collier a scholarship before she hit eighth grade. “She wants to please. That probably comes from the stress of her father and wanting to do well. Some of it’s just her DNA and who she is. I think that sometimes, Charli just has to take a deep breath and realize that everything’s going to be OK.”
At 21, Collier is positioned to fulfill her father’s dream for her thanks to the very lessons he and his wife imparted.
“I really feel like that’s the testimony to my whole life,” Collier said. “I’m definitely resilient. Just making it work, you know?”
WHILE COLLIER HAD accepted Aston’s initial scholarship offer to Texas, she looked to reopen her recruitment by the end of her freshman year in high school. When she did, she became one of the nation’s most coveted prospects.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma invited her to the program’s rowdy “First Night” celebration in October 2016, along with a few other top men’s and women’s recruits. Seven months after her father’s death, Collier became the Huskies’ first commit in the 2018 recruiting class.
As the year went on, though, 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 without any of her normal bubbly conversation. In September 2017, she came to her mom’s classroom and said she didn’t think she could leave the family just yet.
“My daughter had lost her dad. Casey was still in high school, in ninth grade. And to be honest, he didn’t want her to leave either,” Ponda said. “Clearly, we were all latching onto each other.”
They called Auriemma, who was extremely supportive. The next call was to Aston to tell her Collier was coming to Texas after all.
“[Elliott’s death] was life-changing for her,” Aston said, “so she just took a pivot.”
Collier started just one game as a freshman, but by her sophomore year, she was a first-team all-Big 12 center, averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, including a 20-point, 19-rebound performance in an upset of No. 1 Stanford.
Just as things were starting to look up, though, the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte opted not to renew Aston’s contract, making a change in hopes of bridging the growing gap between the Longhorns and Baylor.
For Collier, the combination of losing her coach and the abrupt end of the season needed to be processed.
COLLIER WASN’T SURE what would come next. With Aston gone, she contemplated the transfer portal, but Ponda made it clear she had to finish what she started. So, the response was to get to work. Back at home, Charli and Casey, now a 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive tackle at USC, turned their garage into a gym, hired trainers and became devoted to getting in the best shape of their lives.
Collier wasn’t considering declaring for the 2021 draft, mostly because WNBA rules require players to be either out of high school for four years, turn 22 in the same year as the draft, or have completed a four-year degree. Though Collier had always planned on graduating in three years, the plan was to get a master’s degree while playing college basketball, not speed up her ability to enter the draft.
Then, while working out in her garage one day last year, Collier’s trainer showed her a 2021 WNBA mock draft on his phone that had her being selected No. 8 overall. The realization that others were thinking about her as a potential draft pick stunned Collier and caused her to reconsider her plans.
“I’m like, what did they see? In my head, they see potential,” Collier said. “I’m not even where I’m supposed to be yet. So what happens when I put all the pieces together?”
Collier had already been working to prepare for two more years at Texas. Now she was considering a professional career sooner than she thought possible, while preparing for the unexpected with a new coach. When Vic Schaefer, a Texas native who had built Mississippi State into a powerhouse, arrived as the coach in Austin, he immediately saw her focus coming out of the lockdown training.
“I just found a kid that just absolutely had a monster motor,” he said. “You’ve got to love a kid like that.”
For much of the season, Collier carried the load for the Longhorns while their perimeter offense seized up. She had 19 double-doubles, tied for second most in the NCAA this season, and averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per game. In a November game against North Texas, she had 44 points on 14-of-17 shooting and added 16 rebounds and two blocks. It was the most points scored by a Texas women’s player since 1994.
She also struggled at times. Collier was the focal point of every team’s game plan — “She got doubled and tripled a lot,” Schaefer said — and Baylor was able to hold her in check with a two-point game in February and a three-point game in March.
“Every team has their strategy and I know a lot of people like to hit on the fact that my performance against Baylor is really poor,” Collier said. “Baylor, they’re a national championship team in previous years and they do a good job of scouting and they can take away part of the team. I feel like, at the end of the day, these are life lessons for me.”
In the Longhorns’ NCAA tournament run, Collier had more moments reminiscent of her issues against Baylor. Playing UCLA, she got in foul trouble and ended up with just five points and four rebounds. After a Sweet 16 upset over Maryland, in which Collier and the Longhorns held the Terrapins to a season-low 61 points, Texas faced a strong South Carolina squad and All-America center Aliyah Boston, who is among the front-runners for the 2021-22 national player of the year. The Longhorns’ offense sputtered, not scoring a single point in the fourth quarter, en route to a 62-34 loss. Collier shot just 2-of-10, finishing with four points and three rebounds.
“She might have had some games where she might have struggled,” Schaefer said. “You know, sometimes it wasn’t just her that struggled. Sometimes you just have to give your opponent credit. I don’t read too much into it.”
Collier knows she has to work to keep getting better, and that being viewed as the No. 1 overall pick is going to bring questions when she doesn’t perform well.
“It’s not like I can’t compete,” she said, pointing to a 28-point, 19-rebound performance against Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack, who was named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association national Defensive Player of the Year. “I’ve shown it my whole life, that I can compete against the best of the best.”
IN MANY RESPECTS, last season was a good test run for the pros for Collier.
She was forced to adapt to a lot of change on the fly, and she credits Schaefer with helping her become a better defensive player and rounding out her game.
“You’ve got to have a short memory, especially if you want to be a professional,” Collier said. “You definitely can’t have your feelings on your shoulder about anything.”
She also found ways to showcase her personality and dig into another dream to work in broadcasting, hosting an Instagram Live talk show. (One episode featuring former Longhorns legend Kevin Durant drew 50,000 views.)
And like Schaefer, WNBA scouts and execs at the top of the draft don’t seem overly concerned by Collier’s tournament struggles. In ESPN’s most recent mock draft published after the NCAA tournament, Collier maintained the No. 1 spot.
With a chance to represent Texas as the top overall pick — which would be a first in school history for its storied women’s basketball program — Collier has the skill set to be a dynamic player on the pro level, Schaefer said.
“She can stretch you and shoot the 3,” he said. “She’s good off the bounce. She gets on the boards a little bit. At 6-5, she’s got a real unique skill set.”
Schaefer nodded to his own experience playing Collier in more of a traditional center role despite her ability to shoot from distance.
“Whoever gets her [will find] if you tell her to do something, she’ll absolutely do it and won’t blink an eye,” he said. “No matter what it is, she’s gonna do it at 100 percent.”
Aston, who is now the head coach at UTSA, said Collier will bring a developed, well-rounded game because of a work ethic uncommon in rookies.
“Her shooting touch is phenomenal all the way out to the 3-point line, and she has terrific touch around the rim and you can’t teach that necessarily,” she said. “When you have a player that goes into the pros and already has the ability to step out and pick and pop, do some pick-and-roll action and trail and shoot 3s, that’s an added bonus. A lot of post players have to work on that when they get to the pros.”
Heading into a new chapter as a professional, she can continue to call upon the example her parents set.
“We weren’t lackadaisical people,” Ponda said. “Whatever we want, we have the drive to just go get it.”
Collier sometimes thinks back to that tryout in Colorado Springs just months after her father died. How she responded gives her confidence that she can make good on the potential that others see and find another gear.
“That day separated me from a lot of people,” she said. “I’m shocking myself to this day.”
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