Basketball legend and 14-year WNBA veteran Diana Taurasi is expected to miss the first 10-12 weeks of the 2019 WNBA season following back surgery to repair a disc protrusion that caused her pain and muscle weakness during offseason workouts. With the Big Three of Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner down to a duo for the first few months of the season, the Mercury needed some backcourt assistance for veteran guard Briann January.
Thanks to key offseason acquisitions — 11-year veteran Essence Carson during free agency (via trade from the Los Angeles Sparks) and high-scoring rookie Sophie Cunningham (Mizzou) through the WNBA Draft — the team has the pieces to win now and, simultaneously, to build for the future.
Also through the draft, Phoenix brought in some frontcourt help for do-all forward DeWanna Bonner, who played the best basketball of her career in 2018: Alanna Smith (Stanford) and Brianna Turner (Notre Dame).
Marie Gulich was traded to the Atlanta Dream for Turner, which leaves the center position as the weakest spot on the team. Gulich didn’t get a ton of playing time, but she could be relied upon to give Griner some minutes off. But Phoenix signed Emese Hof (Miami) who, hopefully, will do the same. But there are some questions about whether Hof can.
So, ready or not, the Phoenix Mercury’s rookies could be baptized by fire this season, and this could be a great thing, especially as the regular season edges towards the postseason. If the rookies are forced to develop faster in Taurasi’s absence, when the three-time WNBA champion does return, it would be to a team with a deep bench.
But this doesn’t mean the Mercury will have a smooth ride. Sancho Lyttle, who went down with a torn ACL in 2018, will not be ready to go at the start of the season either, so many adjustments will need to be made. But it will be interesting to see how the new pieces fit with the old, and how quickly — and the adjustments that will take place when the returning old pieces reclaim their starting spots with their subs reassigned to the bench.
Season outlook: The Phoenix Mercury in 2019
Joining Diana Taurasi as a 14-year pro is forward Sancho Lyttle, who is working her way back after a season-ending ACL injury in 2018. According to Taurasi, with whom I spoke during Final Four Weekend, Lyttle is progressing with her rehab — including doing on-court work already — but still “has a little ways to go.” Phoenix has not released an official statement about Lyttle’s status, but it seems unlikely she will be ready to go by the preseason, with no guarantee she’ll be on the court to start the regular season either.
The Mercury’s other returning double-digit veterans are: forward Camille Little (12 years), guard Briann January (10 years) and guard Leilani Mitchell (10 years). So, like it or not, age is more than a number when it comes to the lives of pro athletes, and it appears the Mercury wishes to stay consistent with players who already understand the team’s system.
Perhaps, too, the team is preserving loyalty with hopes for players like Little and Lyttle to win their first championship before eventual retirement.
Although the Mercury regrouped after Lyttle went down with the ACL injury and made it all the way to Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals, it is easy to believe Phoenix would have had a stronger chance to upset the Seattle Storm — for its first WNBA Finals appearance since 2014 — if Lyttle had been on the floor.
But what Lyttle brings to the team cannot be measured via the box score. Contributing completely out of the box, Lyttle makes plays on offense by dishing the right pass or shooting the ball herself when she is the recipient of the right pass. And she is one of the best screeners in the business. On defense, Lyttle is an absolute menace who makes opposing players at any position work for position and earn every basket. Lyttle also is smart on both ends of the floor, averaging fewer than one turnover in 23.3 minutes per game in 2018.
Which guards will step up with Taurasi-like contributions during the All-Star’s absence? Since no single player offers what Taurasi does, each new Mercury guard could contribute specific tasks to the Mercury’s backcourt.
Essence Carson, a forward-guard combo player, will join Briann January in providing veteran leadership in the backcourt. Carson spent most of her career with the New York Liberty, but signed with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016, where she averaged 8.1 points, two rebounds and one steal per game on her way to helping the team win the title that year.
In 2018, Carson averaged 7.5 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. Like Lyttle, however, many of Carson’s contributions do not get recorded in the box score. These include applying dogged defensive pressure that wears out opponents, and making the most of scoring opportunities when playing limited minutes. Last season, Carson made 93.8 percent of her free throws, shot 43.5 percent from the field and made 36.1 percent of her three-point attempts.
The highest scoring player in Mizzou women’s basketball history, Sophie Cunningham (picked 13th overall in the WNBA Draft), offers two key strengths (depending on how head coach Sandy Brondello and newly-minted assistant coach Penny Taylor wish to use her): perimeter shooting and floor spacing. As a Tiger, the 6-foot-1 guard averaged 40.3 percent from deep. And because of her three-point shooting, Cunningham, naturally spreads the floor. When she draws defenders out, Brittney Griner will have more space to operate in the paint — but there is nothing stopping Cunningham from driving through the lane for layup. She also is physical beneath the basket and knows how to draw fouls.
Joining 2018 All-Star DeWanna Bonner in the frontcourt are Brianna Turner (picked 11th overall by the Atlanta Dream and traded to Phoenix for Marie Gulich) and Alanna Smith (picked eighth overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft).
At Notre Dame, Turner averaged 14.3 points per game for her career. She doesn’t have a three-point game and, more importantly, she knows it, so Turner sticks with her spots. In her 2018-19 college season, Turner averaged 63.2 percent from the field.
When Turner does miss a shot, she has no problem cleaning up the glass; she averaged 7.8 rebounds per game during her senior season. In the NCAAW Final game, for example, Turner grabbed 12 rebounds — five of which were offensive boards. (Be reminded that Turner was rebounding against Baylor’s big women, Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox.) Whether working with the second unit or entering rotations with starters, Turner is the type of player who will identify the biggest need and fill that void quickly, whether her services are needed on offense or defense.
Alanna Smith (picked eighth overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft) might be the faster frontcourt fit for the Mercury, however. For starters, she is a member of Australia’s national team, which is coached by Brondello. Smith already understands how Brondello works and Brondello already is familiar with the strengths of Smith’s game and, therefore, knows just what to do to bring them out.
In her senior season at Stanford, Smith averaged 19.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, which includes 39.7 percent made three-pointers. On the defensive end, Smith also registered 2.2 blocks and just over one block per game in her senior Cardinal season. The challenge for Smith will be in adapting to the physicality of the WNBA. And since she will be fouled during physical battles, her game would be helped by improving her free-throw shooting, which is just over 70 percent (like Turner’s).
Although Phoenix shored up its frontcourt and backcourt with its draft picks, the center position seems a bit neglected. Behind Griner is rookie Emese Hof of the Netherlands, a center-forward. Hof had a strong run with the Miami Hurricanes in 2018-19; she averaged 14.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Considering this proven ability, Hof can be an asset to Phoenix, but the biggest disadvantage to her playing the five position is size.
Hof is 6-foot-3, which is smaller than many forwards in the WNBA, including the Mercury’s Lyttle (6-foot-5), and DeWanna Bonner and Alanna Smith — both of whom are 6-foot-4. Griner, meanwhile, is a true center at 6-foot-9, with other teams increasingly placing emphasis on the five position as true bigs become available.
So, the question is whether Hof could contend with likes of 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage (if she returns to the league) or rookies Kalani Brown and Teaira McCowan — both of whom are 6-foot-7. Hopefully, Brondello and Mercury general manager Jim Pitman are working on a late free agency trade to shore up the center spot in the event of an injury to Griner.
Here are the biggest challenges the Phoenix Mercury will face this season:
- No Diana Taurasi for the first few months of the season. Hopefully, this will give the new players on the team a chance to speed up their development. Plus, Taurasi and new assistant coach Penny Taylor won three championships together. Even if Taurasi cannot compete right away, being around the team and coaching the players in practice and from the bench during games will be an asset. This team is not short on teachers to develop the new players, which includes Jennifer Gillom, who this week was named development couch.
- Probably no Sancho Lyttle at the start. Will it be Alanna Smith or Brianna Turner to step up at the forward position? How will these new players fit with the established players? And what adjustments will be made whenever Lyttle returns (with the same question applying to the Taurasi situation).
- Where are all the bigs? Brittney Griner, for all she offers any team, cannot do it alone; a strong backup center is needed in the event she goes down with injury — or, you know, just ends up in foul trouble, gets ejected or is required to serve a suspension. Brondello, an Australian, should take a page from the Steve Kerr playbook: The Golden State Warriors coach brought Australian Andrew Bogut back to the team to shore up the center position in case DeMarcus Cousins went down with injury. Kerr made the choice prior to Cousins’ Jan. 18 return from injury. Bogut joined the team a few weeks before the playoffs, and his services were needed right away: Cousins suffered a torn quad in the second game of the postseason. So, who will Brondello’s backup center be?
No. 5 Phoenix Mercury vs. No. 6 Los Angeles Sparks
When: Saturday, May 11, at 10:00 p.m. ET
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ
How to watch: To be determined
Notes: The Sparks are a Western Conference thorn in Phoenix’s side. But this game will be super interesting because Essence Carson will face off against her former team. Plus, this might be our first chance to see Kalani Brown battle Brittney Griner. Welcome to the WNBA, young gun.
Season home opener
No. 5 Phoenix Mercury at No. 1 Seattle Storm
When: Saturday, May 25, at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Angel of the Winds Arena, Everett, WA
How to watch: ABC
Notes: This Western Conference Finals rematch will feature squads that look nothing like those from the 2018 postseason. Fans won’t get to see a battle between basketball legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi — the latter is out for at least 10 weeks recovering from back surgery. We won’t see the reigning MVP and Finals MVP — Breanna Stewart is out for the season with an Achilles injury. And it is not known yet whether Storm head coach Dan Hughes, who received a cancer diagnosis shortly after Stewart suffered her injury, will be on the sidelines right away. This game will be about coaching experiments. But with both squads still loaded with talent, it should be entertaining nonetheless.
No. 5 Phoenix Mercury vs. No. 12 Indiana Fever
When: Friday, June 28, at 10:00 p.m. ET
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ
How to watch: CBS Sports Network
Notes: The Indiana Fever’s rookie center, Teaira McCowan (SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and veritable double-double queen), will get a taste of the Mercury’s Brittney Griner (league blocking leader, 2014 WNBA champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Olympic gold medalist and FIBA World Cup gold medalist). Enough said.