It became the most predictable part of the 2016-17 UConn women’s basketball team.
Napheesa Collier would receive a pass in the paint, create some space and toss a shot — often a close-range fadeaway jumper — over her defender. More often than not, the shot would land in the net.
As a sophomore, Collier led UConn in scoring (20.4 points) and was third in the country in field goal percentage (67.8). Whether she was scoring on layups or jumpers near the basket, Collier rarely missed.
Game after game.
“She’s a robot,” said Alex Bazzell, a skills coach who has worked one-on-one with Collier for the past year. “Our other trainers talk about it … everything she does, she’s so consistent. I think it’s just her mind-set and her personality. She never really gets too high or too low.”
What UConn fans witnessed last season is what Bazzell has seen since he began watching her play in high school four years ago. Bazzell, who played professionally in Germany, is a skills coach based in his native St. Charles, Missouri, not far from where Collier went to high school.
Collier participated in some group training with Bazzell’s company before enrolling at UConn. But it was after her freshman season when she committed to upgrading her game by working one-on-one with Bazzell.
Bazzell said he got a text from her after that first season, when Collier was a reserve on a national championship team. Collier said she was hoping to train with him when she returned to St. Louis.
Bazzell asked how often she wanted to train.
“I want to go every single day,” she texted.
And she did, after recovering from hip surgery. In the weeks leading up to her return to Storrs, Collier immersed herself in basketball. Bazzell, who is part of the Pure Sweat Basketball training company, focused on Collier’s fadeaway jumper.
“How can we give you space in the post? Usually she’s undersized, height-wise,” Bazzell said. “So what if we just do little baby fadeaways when you get in the post instead of trying to shoot hook shots over these girls? Last year she shot [67.8] percent on little fadeaways in the post. It made her life much easier around the basket.”
This summer, Bazzell has been working with Collier on the mid-range game and her deeper jump shot. Collier has three-point range, but she seemed to lose confidence in her shot, and she focused on scoring in the paint for much of last season.
Bazzell said that Collier’s ability to expand her game will create room in the paint, where she is so good.
“We’ve been focused on mid-range this year, especially with girls trying to take charges on her last year,” Bazzell said. “She got in some foul trouble with charges last year. And then just getting her shot off a little bit quicker on the perimeter. … She looks great right now.”
Said Collier: “There are so many things I absolutely want to work on. Pretty much everything, I want to get better at. I’m really trying to focus on that this summer.”
— UConn Women’s Hoops (@UConnWBB) August 2, 2017
Bazzell, 27, played at Division II Lindenwood University in St. Charles. After playing in Germany, he returned home and began working as a skills coach.
He works with about 250 clients in the St. Louis area, from grade school kids through high school players. He works with college players all over the country and has two clients in the NBA: Doug McDermott of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Bobby Portis of the Chicago Bulls.
Pure Sweat Basketball’s list of NBA clients includes Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. Bazzell has seen the NBA players train, so he has a high bar as his point of reference.
And here’s what he says about Collier: “It’s crazy. We’ll throw different stuff at her, and her ability to pick things up is quicker than any athlete that I’ve ever seen or any athlete that I’ve every worked with. I’ve had the pleasure to see Andrew Wiggins work out for the first time with one of our other trainers. I’ve seen Zach LaVine and some of my NBA guys. She picks up footwork quicker than anyone I’ve seen. Sometimes it will take 15 minutes with a certain move for one of the NBA guys to pick up. It might take her two reps and she’s got it. It’s crazy.”
Collier, meanwhile, doesn’t watch much NBA. Bazzell, a point guard, was a kid who spent hours watching video of Steve Nash and trying to mimic the moves. He’s a visual learner and the video helped him improve his game.
So he’s astounded by Collier’s ability to execute on the court without really studying other players.
“She might know maybe five or 10 NBA players,” he said. “She doesn’t watch a lot but is very, very smart about trying to find ways to make herself successful on the court. That’s even more impressive, that she doesn’t watch a ton of games.”
Bazzell talks about Collier’s high basketball IQ and innate ability to read the floor. He also raves about her work ethic.
Do those traits sound familiar? Run through the history of great UConn players and there’s a common thread. Bazzell has worked with some of Collier’s teammates, visiting Connecticut for a session last month. He also worked with Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson in Southern California in late July.
Bazzell has been on the court with Crystal Dangerfield, Azura Stevens, Batouly Camara, Samuelson and Collier. Being around the Huskies gives him an even greater appreciation for Geno Auriemma’s program.
“Obviously, they’re very skilled, but they’re very smart, and they’re all very hungry to learn,” Bazzell said.. “All of them, when they’re working out, they’re asking questions. … As talented and as skilled as they are and as much success as they’ve had, they’re all willing to drop their egos when they walk in the gym and try to learn a little bit and get better every single time.”
Bazzell said he reaches out to college coaching staffs when working with college players. His goal, he said, is to help players develop within the framework of what their coaches expect from them.
“[Bazzell] definitely personalizes for me,” Collier said. “He looks at film, sees what your weaknesses are and what you need to get better at. He’s helped me so much.”
— Alex Bazzell (@alexbazzell24) July 30, 2017
Bazzell said Collier can be even better as a junior. She was already among the best players in the country, and the Huskies will be adding the 6-foot-6 Stevens to the lineup, creating matchup problems for opponents.
With Stevens joining a lineup of experienced players (Collier, Samuelson, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse), UConn should be fun to watch.
“It’s going to something,” Bazzell said. “They’re going to be tough to beat the next couple of years.”
This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.