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2019 WNBA Draft Analysis: Phoenix Mercury’s wealth of new talent will bolster championship-ready roster

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While the Mercury’s core is set — with all starters returning — there’s still room for its brightest draft picks to get some solid minutes during the 2019 WNBA season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Chicago Regional-Notre Dame vs Stanford
First competitors, now teammates: Brianna Turner (left) and Alanna Smith (right) represent two of the top defensive options for the Mercury as they build their 2019 roster.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

After a top-heavy WNBA Draft, the Phoenix Mercury’s wealth of potential new additions — three players in the top 13 and four selected overall — will bolster an already-solid roster in 2019.

The ability to select from any one of four draftees will provide some much-needed youth to a squad that will find itself rebuilding in the next few years. Although Phoenix’s core starting lineup of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Sancho Lyttle and Briann January are all set to return, only Griner is under 30 years old. This necessitates something of a mini-rebuild — assembling another core team of players that might not receive much playing time in their first season or two, but who can potentially come up big for the team in the future.

With draft picks Alanna Smith (8th overall), Brianna Turner (11th overall, trade from Atlanta), Sophie Cunningham (13th overall) and Arica Carter (32nd overall), the Mercury have two major directions they can go with this draft class.

Load up on scoring

As the fourth-highest-scoring team in the WNBA last season, with three players in the top 13 in points per game, Phoenix doesn’t technically need more scorers — not yet, anyway. But adding two young scorers to this season’s roster will prepare them to take the place of some of the veteran scorers a few years down the road.

With two of the best scorers this past NCAA season in Smith and Cunningham at their disposal, the Mercury can begin to develop successors to the Taurasi-Griner-Bonner trio that blew up the WNBA last season.

Smith seems a natural fit already, having played under head coach Sandy Brondello at the international level for Team Australia. But she’s also exactly what the Mercury needed from a first-round pick: height (at 6-foot-4) and mid-range ability (plus a 40 percent average from three) that will allow more room for Griner to work inside. Of course, she’s also got the added bonus of having played against Griner and Taurasi this summer, where she contributed a team-high 10 points off the bench in Australia’s FIBA World Cup loss to the United States.

At the guard position, Cunningham is a massive threat from beyond the arc, an area where the Mercury could use some extra star power. Taurasi held down the fort as the league’s top per-game 3-point shooter in 2018. But Cunningham’s presence has already inspired comparisons between the two of them. At Mizzou, Cunningham notched 590 career three-pointers, the second-most all-time, at an impressive 40.3 percent. Maintaining this clip at the professional level will be important to Cunningham’s success. But if she manages to so, those comparisons might not be too far-off in the future.

Stay defensive-minded

Phoenix’s 11th overall pick, Brianna Turner, offers a solid defensive presence honed at a national championship-caliber university. Though she didn’t play on Notre Dame’s 2018 title-winning team due to injury, she shone as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in three seasons and finished as the school’s career leader in rebounds and blocks.

The Mercury ended 2018 as the third-worst rebounding team, with the bulk of its second-best 4.7 team blocks per game coming from Griner alone. While Turner’s height (6-foot-3) means that being a Griner-like presence down low won’t be nearly as straightforward, it wouldn’t work against her league-wide. Last season, three of the top five players in blocks per game all came in at 6-foot-3 or shorter.

Smith, too, is a defensive presence. Her 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game this past season at Stanford only added to her all-around versatility as a reliable scorer and defender. Plus, at 6-foot-4, learning to use her height to her advantage could very quickly put Smith at the upper echelon of defensive players in the WNBA.

At any rate, the height that Phoenix picked up this draft can only help the team in all areas down the line, no matter which direction the franchise takes.