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2021 WNBA Season Preview: Griner, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith poised for big years with Phoenix Mercury

Brittney Griner being back and Diana Taurasi being back to her old self are among the positives surrounding the Phoenix Mercury entering the 2021 WNBA season.

Seattle Storm v Phoenix Mercury
Brittney Griner in the Mercury’s new Heroine edition uniform.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Mercury are one of the biggest question marks in the WNBA, but have a high ceiling. Can they compete for more championships as Diana Taurasi’s career winds down?

Potential promise of the Mercury

Brittney Griner is back

Griner missed a good chunk of last season for personal reasons. She was second in MVP voting in 2019 and led the league in scoring with 20.7 points per game that year. To outscore Elena Delle Donne by 1.2 is impressive. At age 30 there’s no reason she can’t be an MVP candidate again this year and she says the time she took off last year has her rested and ready for 2021.

“It helped big-time,” Griner said of her break at Mercury media day. “I didn’t go overseas until January either. So just having that break, honestly it was my first break I’ve had since college. College straight in, overseas, WNBA, world championships, Olympics in Rio, like it’s been go go go go go. I hate that it had to come in the middle of the season last year how it did, but it was such a good reset and a good moment at that time for me to just be able to breathe and rest and get myself together fully, like actually fully, not rushed trying to do it either.”

So it sounds like Griner could have a big season and the Mercury could finally get to see their new big three of her, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith play together in the playoffs. That trio gives them some of the best top-end talent in the league.

“I like what we have,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. “I don't think anyone’s talking about us winning the championship, but we believe in our team, I believe in these players. And if we can stay together and stay healthy, why can’t we win?”

Griner was one of the most hyped-up No. 1 picks in WNBA history and for good reason. She’s an incredibly gifted inside scorer and shot-blocker who is 6-foot-9. When she’s at her best, she can flat-out dominate.

“There’s no question that we’re a better team when she’s here,” Taurasi said of Griner. “We’ve proven that by winning a championship in 2014 and making playoff runs.

“We all know what BG can do. And when she comes here focused and ready to go, she’s the most unstoppable force in our game. Yesterday was her first practice, she looks amazing off her Russian season. She looks strong and fit.

“It’s up to BG what she wants to do. When she’s on her game, she makes us one of the best teams in the league.”

Diana Taurasi had a resurgence last year

Griner may be the Mercury’s best player these days, but watch out for Taurasi, the generally agreed upon GOAT of the WNBA. Taurasi struggled with a back injury at age 37 in 2019 and averaged just 4.3 points per game in just six games. The questions arose about her talent declining and her nearing retirement. However, in classic Diana Taurasi “badass” fashion, she unabashedly shot 8.8 threes per game in 2020, making 3.2 of them en route to a scoring average of 18.7 and a spot on the All-WNBA Second Team. She is almost 39 years old, but got paid the new supermax this offseason and is expected to be one of the best players in the WNBA like she was last year, coming in at No. 14 in Swish Appeal’s Top 30 list. Griner was No. 5 and Taurasi’s backcourt mate, Skylar Diggins-Smith was No. 13.

Potential problems for the Mercury

Can they come together as a team in the big moments?

The Mercury have a ton of talent at the top of their roster, but they underachieved last year even when Griner was on the floor. They came in at No. 6 in our power rankings, which may seem disrespectful, but there are a lot of other loaded teams out there and the Mercury need to prove that they have that it factor that will give them an edge. That’s not to question Taurasi’s clutchness — she has all the it factor in the world. But can she lead this cast to the championship? They’ll need to prove that they have better team chemistry before we can make that prediction.

Diana Taurasi at media day:

When you look at our roster, having BG back, having Skylar have a full offseason and a full training camp. Bringing in Kia Nurse. Lan (Alanna Smith), Sophie (Cunningham) and Breezy (Brianna Turner) coming back for their third year. I feel like there’s just a lot of positives coming in. Megan Walker and Shey Peddy after the summer she had with us last year. You just see all these things and all these pieces and if we can all get on the same track and working towards the same goal, I think we can do some special things this summer. But that’s just all nonsense if we don’t come in and put in the work every day.

By the way, that was the bulk of Taurasi’s answer to a question about what she thought of everyone considering her to be the GOAT.

Growth of young players needed

Brianna Turner is a good sixth-best player after the big three, Bria Hartley and Kia Nurse. She may even be a fifth- or fourth best player pretty soon. She averaged nine rebounds and two blocks last year and is clearly on the rise entering her third season. However, her draft mates Alanna Smith and Sophie Cunningham need to live up to the potential they've shown in year three and them doing so is less certain. Smith averaged a decent 6.1 points in 15.6 minutes last year, but shot just 23.3 percent from beyond the arc. Cunningham is quick and is a pesky defender with all the hustle in the world, but can she become a legitimate offensive threat? If those two players and Turner don’t take big leaps, Phoenix’s depth is going to be on the weaker side.

Brianna Turner at media day:

I think I definitely grew from year one to year two. So I just want to continue to see improvements all around. Next year I want to come back and feel like I definitely saw a difference in my game.

Playoff prospects

The Mercury should definitely be a playoff team. They are one of six teams that are pretty clearly ahead of the other six and eight make the playoffs. The real question is how they will fare in the postseason.