PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Allow me to list the many challenges that the Phoenix Mercury have this season:
Coach Corey Gaines has had a smile on his face from the moment he won the Griner Lottery last September, which more than likely helped him forget the injuries, the frustration, and the ill-timed "dental work" that led his team to an abysmal 7-27 record in 2012.
Even though Gaines would not commit on who his choice was at the time (who does?), literally everyone who’s a women’s hoops fan knew that it was inevitable that Griner was going to team up with WNBA superstar Diana Taurasi, and join a two-time champion team with the potential of building a dynasty in the desert. Even the league knew: You think it’s a coincidence that Phoenix is going to open its season against Chicago, which secured Elena Delle Donne with the No. 2 overall pick?
No, me neither.
Even Louisville’s stunning defeat of top-seeded Baylor in this year’s NCAA tournament took none of the patina off the allure of the 6-8 post.
“[In] one of the first conversations we had after she [Griner] lost to Louisville, I told her that it would never happen again," Gaines said of the sandwich-style double team defensive technique Louisville employed (along with a few elbows) to contain the Baylor standout. No question Griner will continue to draw double teams throughout her career, but with the new defensive rules the WNBA implemented in the offseason, and the star-caliber talent surrounding Griner on the Mercury roster, Gaines knows that such a single-minded shutdown scenario is unlikely to recur in the W.
“Definitely looking forward to that defensive three seconds,” Griner said during a press conference last month. She underscored the sentiment by clenching a fist and letting out a quiet, “Yes!”
Beyond the dunk (which we will get to later), Griner brings something relatively new to the high-octane, offense-driven Phoenix Mercury: a strong defensive presence in the paint. Gaines has often commented that the offensive run-and-gun system Paul installed for the Mercury was built around a big center, a big center the Mercury has never really had until now. Throughout Westhead’s tenure, and since Gaines took over following his mentor's departure, the center position on the Mercury roster has been filled – but never fully utilized.
“Having a dominant true center, this is going to be something kinda new,” said Phoenix Mercury president Amber Cox on draft day.
With the addition of Griner to the roster, the Mercury now have the ability to get more defensive stops without sacrificing their preference for a fast-paced, high-scoring offense. Griner, who averaged 22.2 points per game in her career at Baylor, will add nicely to the offense.
Some have voiced concerns as to whether Griner will be able to keep up with the Mercury's often frenetic pace. To be sure, it would be the rare post who could take on Taurasi in the 100 meters, but those who followed Griner's college career closely know that she sprinted the length of the court on nearly every play, often beating the guards down the floor.
And though Gaines didn't draft her for her range -- “I’m going keep you close to that basket,” he said in last month's post-draft press conference -- Griner has even been working on some perimeter shots.
“I can shoot a couple of threes,” Griner said. “I’ve been workin’ on my stroke," she added, which drew laughter from the crowd gathered in the media room, but might not be nearly as amusing to opposing coaches if Griner is able to add a reliable three-ball to that already extraordinary skill set.
Brittney Griner is obviously the big news, but with Taurasi's dental work presumably now taken care of, Penny Taylor back in the saddle and DeWanna Bonner re-signed for the long haul, there's plenty more for Gaines and Phoenix fans to smile about.
Point Guard: Samantha Prahalis, Alexis Hornbuckle, and …
Samantha Prahalis returns for her second year with the Mercury, complete with blonde locks, new tattoos, and a little more seasoning. On top of the normal transition facing any college player in her first year in the pros, Prahalis was immediately thrust into a starting position last year on a team with a radically different playing style from that to which she had been accustomed, as she moved from a Buckeye offense that typically operated in half-court sets to a team that likes to score in the first seven seconds of the possession. The adjustments were major -- and at times challenging for the former Ohio State star, who averaged just over 11 points per game, shooting 35 percent, in 31 minutes of gameplay in her rookie season -- but Gaines is confident that what Prahalis will see in training camp will not be anything new.
“She should know what to expect, know what is going to happen. [She will be] more relaxed at that position now,” Gaines said. “I’ve already seen her a few times, and she’s a totally different person.”
Alexis Hornbuckle is the obvious choice for back-up point guard, though Gaines also mentioned the possibility of DeWanna Bonner (who could be seen running the point at Auburn during her NCAA days) or even Diana Taurasi.
“We can go big [Bonner], or we can go shooter [Taurasi], or we can go a defensive guard with Buck [Hornbuckle].”
Options are indeed a good thing.
Shooting guard: Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner, Erin Thorn
The shooting guard position has been the weapon of choice in the Mercury arsenal for some time, and though Gaines rattled off Taurasi, Taylor and Bonner for the two-spot, even with the additions to the training camp roster, this position is pretty much set. With five-time league scoring champ Taurasi leading the charge, backed up by three-point specialist Thorn on the perimeter, along with Bonner, the 6-4 swingwoman who was the second leading scorer in the league in 2012, the Mercury are poised to shoot the lights out on any given night.
“Last year was a breakout year for her [Bonner],” Gaines said, “but I think she has more in store for us.”
Thorn could also conceivably be called upon to run the point, and in addition to these three leading contenders, Phoenix has several more players capable of sliding out of their given positions and into the guard role.
Small Forward: Penny Taylor, Charde Houston
For example, Penny Taylor, generally viewed as a forward and often as a power forward. This season, however, the Mercury have more choices at power forward, and are much more likely to utilize a player other than Taylor or Houston at the four, meaning Taylor, back from last season's ACL tear, is likely to see more time at the small forward position. Moreover, Gaines likes his players to be versatile, and has been known to shuffle players between the small forward and shooting guard positions interchangeably. Both Taylor and Houston are more than capable of anchoring the small forward position or of moving to the two-guard as match-ups and/or injuries dictate.
Power Forward: Candice Dupree, Ify Ibekwe, Nikki Greene, Lynetta Kizer, Jalana Childs, Megan Frazee
This is the only position that Gaines indicated is up for grabs, and the Mercury have a wealth of riches when it comes to candidates for the position. Given that Dupree is under contract and is most likely a lock for the final roster, that leaves the main competition in training camp up to two rookies (Greene and Childs), some second-chance hopefuls (Ibekwe and Kizer) and a former WNBA player looking to return to the league (Frazee), all battling for the back-up job at the four. Scoring ability will play a heavy role in the outcome, and rebounding could ice the cake. Kizer, who could be the frontrunner, actually had some time on the Phoenix roster last season where she seemed to fit in quite well, averaging 7.1 points in 15.6 minutes per game. Ibekwe, who averaged 14.3 points per game while at the University of Arizona, but has never been able to stay on a WNBA roster since being waived by the Seattle Storm in 2011, offers some hometown draw to the college crowd from nearby Tucson. Frazee had two very average seasons coming off the bench for the San Antonio Silver Stars, and is hoping to make a comeback after having been out of the league since the 2011 preseason, when she was waived by the Washington Mystics.
Rookies Greene and Childs have scoring and rebounding potential: The 6-4 Penn State post averaged 9.2 points and a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game this season as a senior, while Childs put up 14.5 points and pulled down nearly five boards a game in 2011-12 as a senior at K-State. Childs skipped the 2012 WNBA Draft, opting instead to finish her degree, then take her game to China, playing club ball with the U.S. All Stars, an exhibition team sponsored by the U.S. Basketball Academy.
It's training camp, where anything can happen, but it remain to be seen whether the collegiate skills of either newcomer will transfer to the professional level, and Gaines has made clear where his priorities lie when it comes to undertaking major training projects: “We have a veteran team, so we know who we want already. Why waste time with people who aren’t going to be with us, teaching them stuff? It gives you more time with Brittney.”
Which brings us to…
Center: Brittney Griner, Krystal Thomas
The Mercury now have what Amber Cox referred to as a “true center” on their roster with Brittney Griner. The two-time collegiate Defensive Player of the Year, who broke the NCAA single-season record for blocks as a mere freshman, offers an obvious defensive boost in the paint for the Mercury, in addition to her talent for dunking -- a feat rarely seen to date in the WNBA. With Griner, we’re not talking about the needing-a-running-start or once-in-a-great-while dunks we have seen in the WNBA until now. We’re talking about drop-step, turn around and throw-it-down dunks. Brittney dunked more times in her collegiate career than all other women in NCAA history combined. Of course, if any of this is news to you, then you might want to do a Google search for Griner before the season starts, or perhaps sail in from the island you’ve been living on for the past four years.
However, getting dunks from Griner doesn’t seem to me a main focus for Gaines.
“A basket’s a basket. The dunk is important for excitement; it does bring in fans. But, you know, she (Griner) scores 30, and she doesn’t have any dunks, I’m not going to be upset,” said Gaines with a grin.
And really, who would?
Krystal Thomas is going to have some stiff competition for the center position, but Griner can’t be expected to play without a break. Thomas started 25 games last season after she was added back to the roster, shortly after being waived before the 2012 season started. Her eight rebounds and six points per game might not exactly jump off the page, but her knowledge of the Mercury offensive system (which Taurasi has commented takes at least two seasons to get used to) will allow Griner some time to catch her breath between blocks and dunks.
Versatility is the name of the game in Phoenix. Griner brings a whole new skill set, and with it, a new beginning for the Phoenix Mercury. As with all rookies, there is still the matter of Griner’s transition to the pros; no doubt Gaines will be taking advantage of every minute in training camp to get her ready.
It will all unfold on May 27 when Griner, Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury open their season at home against Delle Donne, Fowles and the Chicago Sky –- and it’s fair to say that expectations in Phoenix are sky-high indeed.
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