Milic learning WNBA is not like the league she left behind

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After practice ended last week, Lynx coaches had Nikolina Milic run through a special drill. She was asked to guard a post, deny an entry pass, then defend the player once the ball was in her hands.

With one rule: Milic was not allowed to touch the person she was defending. At all. No arm bar, no hands, no leaning on the body, nothing.

Not easy.

"It's all about position,'' Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. And then she referred to Rebekkah Brunson, now a Lynx assistant who, as a player, was one of the best post defenders Reeve ever coached. "Brunson rarely touched her player. With this drill we're ramping up our efforts to keep [Milic] out of foul trouble.''

It's all part of the process of learning to play basketball the way it's played in the United States, particularly in the WNBA.

"This is one thing I never expected,'' Milic said. "When I came here, I thought it would be more physical, and it is the opposite. Actually here, they really don't allow contact, which I'm not used to. I like contact. I'm a physical player.''

Milic is a 6-3 post player who, at age 28, is a WNBA rookie. She was born to Serbian parents in a relatively small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A workout warrior and fastidious eater, she is long, lean and strong. She has enjoyed a long and successful career in Europe, including playing for the Serbian team at the 2019 FIBA Women's Eurobasket tournament, where Serbia won a bronze — and where she jumped onto the Lynx's radar.

The two sides talked for a while about Milic coming to Minnesota. But then the pandemic happened. Last year Reeve didn't feel there was room on the roster. But this year, when the Lynx were rocked by last-minute changes and injuries, Milic got her chance. She first came to the Lynx on a replacement contract. After that she was signed to a succession of seven-day contracts. Recently, she was signed for the rest of the season.

And now she is a part of Reeve's plan for the future.

This season she has seen her role change many times. She has appeared in 28 games. She has been everything from a starter (four times) to the fifth post in a five-post rotation depending on the health of the Lynx roster.

"She's very aggressive,'' Reeve said. "And she is very competitive, which is very valuable. She will fight, at both ends. And that's contagious. When she's on the floor you know you're getting a competitor. And she is perhaps our best low-post scorer after Sylvia [Fowles]."

Offensively, Milic's game has translated well. She has good footwork and a variety of spin moves and hook shots that allow her to get her shot off against bigger competitors. Milic is averaging 6.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per game, shooting 58.8% on two-point shots.

On a 36-minute-per-game basis, she's averaging almost 18 points and nine rebounds — and 5.5. fouls.

Learning how to defend without fouling is key. "It's something I'm working on,'' Milic said.

The whole season has been a learning experience for Milic, who is in the country for the first time. She had to learn a new style of game, get to know her teammates. Coming from a smaller town, the big city isn't her favorite. And when she came over in early May she was surprised — and unprepared — for the unseasonably cold Minnesota spring. But Milic said she has come to love Minneapolis and its lakes.

Professionally, it was time to try the WNBA.

"I have had a long career, I had a lot of experience playing in Europe, playing in Euroleague,'' Milic said. "It's high-level basketball. But this was something that was missing in my career. And I thought, 'Why not give it a chance?'"

Milic has certainly shown she belongs at this level. And, as she adapts her defensive game, her role will likely grow.

"I know what I can do,'' she said. "I've played with many players from this league [in Europe]. I never doubted what I could do.''