Incarnate Word’s Collier keeps perspective on life
Based on the timeline of her basketball career, it would seem that Napheesa Collier has long been fully immersed in the game that is expected to pay for her college education.
Having been discovered on a softball field in fourth grade, played in the AAU nationals in sixth grade and offered a scholarship by Mizzou in eighth grade, the 6-foot-1 guard at Incarnate Word Academy is among the most sought-after juniors in the country.
Yet, Collier and her parents refuse to let basketball define her existence, even in the midst of a recruitment that already has seen 12 of the most noted women’s college coaches in the country occupy a spot on the family’s living room sofa.
“I’m kind of different from others who play. I don’t think about basketball 24-7,” Collier said. “I’m not obsessed with it. I just like to play. You see others who eat, sleep and breathe it. When I’m not practicing or at the gym, I’m not thinking about it constantly.”
However, she has worked at the game enough that after a year and a half at IWA, Collier already is considered among the best female players to step on a court in St. Louis. And she has played in all but one game of the team’s 45-game winning streak.
She is the top talent on the country’s No. 1 ranked girls high school team, according to the USA Today rankings. Her short list of colleges includes Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Notre Dame.
But like the diverse background of her family, Collier has developed a range of interests and pursuits that her parents have encouraged since her early childhood in Jefferson City.
“She has so many interests that basketball is just something else she does,” said her mother, Sarah. “Not that it’s not important. She takes it very seriously. But she knows there’s more to life and basketball will come to an end some time. She’s looking at life.”
Said her father, Gamal: “We don’t want her to think basketball is the only thing that’s important about her.”
But there’s no debating her aptitude for the sport.
Collier transferred from Jefferson City to IWA as a sophomore when her family moved to the area. She had averaged 17.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists as a freshman.
In her first year with the Red Knights, she produced 24.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, and four steals per game, and she was the Post-Dispatch All-Metro player of the year as the team went 31-0 and won the Missouri Class 4 state championship.
This season she is averaging 24.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.5 steals and shooting 67 percent.
“She plays within the flow of the game and within our system, and it’s almost like she sneaks up every game and has 25 points,” coach Dan Rolfes said. “You don’t realize she’s getting that many points a game. Since day one, she has been a team player, almost to the point there are times I want her to be more aggressive with the ball.”
All of this has made Collier the No. 4 rated player in the class of 2015 by prospectsnation.com and No. 7 by HoopGurlz.
Completely unselfish, Collier can fly under the radar, as she showed in IWA’s most recent win. She doesn’t force herself on the offense and tends to mostly penetrate and pitch the ball back to the perimeter, knowing it will probably return.
When it does, Collier is usually around the basket. She scored 28 points against Marian Catholic with exactly half coming within feet of the basket and half from the free-throw line after she was fouled 12 times.
“It’s important in our style to dribble drive and pass it out,” she said. “I like to think of myself as a team player. That’s what some coaches say, which I’m happy about. I don’t like to see arrogant players, so I try not to be like that.”
Collier often takes a physical beating, something the Red Knights prepare for in practice, using drills in which players must score near the basket while being pushed and fouled.
But it’s hard to prepare for harsher moments. Collier nearly had a tooth knocked out in a tournament a few years back. She has deep bruises on her legs. And with her phone camera, her mother documented a deep, long scratch on her daughter’s arm, inflicted by an opponent’s fingernail, .
“That wasn’t even called a foul,” Sarah Collier said. “But she’s more tired than anything. She never complains about the fouls, about being hurt. If we ask, she might tell us. I think it’s expected. She expects it.”
Collier gets her rest and recuperation while reading, which is a favorite down-time activity. She leans toward the vampire and fantasy genre. When the TV is on, she is apt to be found watching “Dance Moms.”
But Collier is considerably more diverse, an attribute that has been cultivated from her parents’ upbringings. Sarah was raised on a dairy farm in Eugene, Mo., about 25 miles south of Jefferson City. Gamal was born in the United States but raised in Sierra Leone, where his father was the ambassador to the U.S. The two met after Gamal moved to Jefferson City from England, where he had attended boarding school.
On the dairy farm, Napheesa is drawn to the horses and four-wheelers. In Jefferson City she was raised from a young age participating in activities of the Sierra Leone Association. She and her brother, Kai, sponsor a young girl in Sierra Leone.
The family often cooks meals from that region of Africa. Collier often wore traditional garb from her father’s native country to events sponsored by the association, which was created to support transplants from Sierra Leone.
“It’s how we survived when we came here,” Gamal said. “The culture is very strong. Anything we did, we involved the children.”
And they are trying to extend that childhood as long as possible, despite a significant upcoming decision.
The Colliers hosted 12 coaches at their home in September and visited with one coach at school. Napheesa then picked her five finalists. Mizzou remains on the list with four national powers.
Tigers coach Robin Pingeton was the first to offer a scholarship when the family visited campus when Napheesa was in eighth grade. At that point, Collier couldn’t really grasp what was taking place.
“I didn’t really realize what was going on,” she said. “When we got to the car my parents were acting excited. I didn’t know what was happening, and then they told me.”
Now she has her choice of schools and wants to decide before the start of her senior season. The topic isn’t discussed much around the house since the blitz of visits ended.
Collier plans to make her campus visits in the spring before deciding on a school.
“I think about it a lot. But I don’t like to talk about it because I don’t like making decisions, like where I want to eat,” she said. “It was a real rush when all the coaches came. I’m really happy with my choices. I knew once I picked my five I wasn’t going to change them.”
Like it or not, eventually she’ll have to pick a winner.
…and I am excited for her and I know less than nothing about the game. Change That!