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2023 WNBA season preview: Questions surround Griner’s rust and Taurasi’s age as Mercury aim to contend

The Phoenix Mercury have two high-ceiling players in Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, but will they be the vintage versions of themselves?

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

BG is back.

Diana Taurasi is also back, but she’ll be 41 for most of the season and how effective she’ll be at that age remains to be seen. She was great last year at age 40, averaging 16.7 points and 3.8 assists over the course of 31 games. So maybe she will continue to prover doubters wrong and be ageless.

BG being 100 percent is another aspect of the Mercury’s upcoming season that is in question. Griner was detained in Russia for almost 10 months and has only been back in the States for five. She reportedly did not play basketball while detained even though there was a hoop where she was initially, because it was depressing to remind herself of basketball.

Griner did not play in Phoenix’s first preseason game on May 8. She did appear in the team’s second preseason contest, which was at home this past Friday, scoring 10 points in 17:13. She added three rebounds and a block and was 2-of-5 from the field (6-of-8 on free throws). That’s pretty promising, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that she’ll consistently be as great as she usually is during the first stretch of the season.

If she is 100 percent, she’s an MVP candidate for sure. The last time she played in the WNBA (2021) she finished second in the voting for that award. Most Swish Appeal writers who voted for our Top 30 WNBA player list were confident enough in her to put her in their Top 5 and she wound up being at No. 4 on the overall staff list.

The third of the Mercury’s big three, Skylar Diggins-Smith, has missed training camp on maternity leave and is likely to miss the beginning of the regular season. If she was in the mix right now, Phoenix would have a case to be the next-best team behind the loaded Aces and Liberty. They’d be in the running with the Sun and Mystics. Without Diggins-Smith, the Mercury are not as threatening, but Sophie Cunningham will be doing everything in her power to step up and be that third star for this team.

Cunningham shot a phenomenal 40 percent from beyond the arc with 70 makes last year, earning my vote for Most Improved Player.

New point guard Moriah Jefferson could also step in and be that third star on occasion after she saw a renaissance last year when she averaged 10.8 points and 4.9 assists for the Lynx. And then there’s a fifth-year player who has spent her whole career in Phoenix in Brianna Turner, who is a star in her own right because of her rebounding and defense. She has never averaged double-figure scoring but has career-best averages of 9.4 rebounds (2021) and two blocks (2020).

The Mercury picked up 2021 Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere in a four-team trade this offseason, potentially giving them some great depth. However, Onyenwere saw her role diminish with the Liberty last year, as she averaged just 4.7 points in 13.7 minutes after averaging 8.6 in 22.2 as a rookie. It remains to be seen if she can get back on a star path, but adding a former Rookie of the Year is never anything to sneeze at.

I can’t say enough about Shey Peddy, who not only battled to earn a spot in the league as a 30-year-old rookie in 2019, but has now become a high-impact player. She averaged career highs of 9.9 points, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 28.6 minutes while making 24 starts for the Mercury last year. She is back for her fourth season in Phoenix and opponents will have to respect her 3-point shot (48 makes in 2022) and all-around guard abilities.

Megan Gustafson will also look to add to the Mercury’s depth this year. She averaged 22.6 points and 9.4 rebounds this past EuroLeague season, so be on the lookout for a breakout WNBA season from her.

Phoenix erased a lot of playoff demons by making it to the Finals in 2021, because, even though it lost those Finals, it did not look scared in the postseason and was instead intimidating to its opponents. Griner and Taurasi had all-time great playoff runs that instilled fear in the rest of the league. The Mercury now cling to remnants of hope that they can get back to being that team.