When the Phoenix Mercury announced Diana Taurasi had back surgery, it seemed as if the team had another stroke of bad luck.
Along with Taurasi, both Camille Little and Sancho Lyttle sat out the Mercury’s first preseason home game due to their ankle and knee injuries, respectively.
Although the Mercury made six consecutive semifinal appearances, it has not had a healthy team since 2016. In 2017 and Brittney Griner missed games due to ankle and knee injuries. Guard DeWanna Bonner sat out the entire season when she was pregnant. In 2018 former all-star Lyttle didn’t make it 18 games before tearing her ACL.
This will be the first season the Mercury will start the year without Taurasi since she sat out the 2015 season to play overseas. Taurasi averaged 20.7 points per game last year, her most since the 2011 season. She is also the only WNBA player to reach 7,000 career points. In other words, Taurasi is leaving some big shoes to fill.
Even so, this year feels different. A combination of returning veterans, free agent signings and rookies are confident they can step up during Taurasi’s absence.
Brittney Griner and Dewanna Boner
Brittney Griner, 28, has spent her entire career with the Mercury and expects nothing less than a championship this year.
“I definitely think we’ll be in the finals this year,” Griner says with a grin after the Mercury’s first official training camp practice on May 5.
Last year the Mercury didn’t quite make it to the finals as it lost a best of five series to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA semifinals 3-2. The Mercury came back after being down 2-0, but ultimately fell short in game five 94-84. This was the Mercury’s sixth consecutive semifinal appearance.
“We almost got to the finals, but almost doesn’t win anything,” Griner says.
Last season, Griner led the league in blocks for the sixth consecutive year and averaged 20.5 points per game, along with 7.7 rebounds.
Shooting guard Bonner returned to the team in 2018 and made her first all-star appearance since 2015 after averaging 17.3 points per game in her comeback season.
Taurasi expects Griner and Bonner to be the leaders on the team while she is out, but she also acknowledged the women will need more than two contributors.
Griner and head coach Sandy Brondello believe returning veteran guard Briann January can help fill the void left by Taurasi.
Brondello says nobody can really fill Taurasi’s shoes, but January is the team’s “best perimeter defensive player and she’s one of the best three-point shooters in the league.”
This is January’s second season with the Mercury. She is a six-time WNBA All-Defensive selection who averaged 47% on three pointers last year.
“She’s so quick, so strong, she can knock down a shot when we need her to knock it down,” Griner says.
Griner adds the Mercury will benefit from opponents having to choose if one of their guards should shoot from outside or her in the paint.
“I think it’s really going to help open up the floor for me,” January says. “Pick your poison. You want me to score down low or you want them to score outside.”
The Mercury’s offseason acquisitions like Essence Carson will also determine how well the team will perform without Taurasi.
Carson was previously with the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. She came to Phoenix after seeing the Mercury’s performance in last year’s playoffs. This is significant because the Mercury lost back-to-back semifinals to the Sparks in 2016 and 2017. The team hopes this experience will translate to playoff success.
The Mercury is already buying in as Carson says she has been welcomed with open arms in just its first official practice. She says the team should focus on execution and fine tuning the small things during Taurasi’s absence. Each player needs to stick to their job and doing it well, she adds.
Alanna Smith, the No. 8 pick out of Stanford in the 2018 WNBA draft, is ready to make an immediate impact for the Mercury.
As a senior last year for the Cardinal, she averaged 19.4 points per game and 8.6 rebounds to go along with a 39% three-point percentage.
Although Smith described being drafted in the top 10 a surreal childhood dream, she is excited and ready to go.
“I’m ready to play whatever role the team needs me to play,” Smith says. That could be “a scoring role or a facilitator.” Nevertheless, she is “here to give 100%.”
Taurasi says these acquisitions will help the team compete.
“There is an injection of youth and free agency that has made us a better and more well-balanced team,” Taurasi says.
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