PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Expectations were high for a Phoenix return to the top of the league heading into the 2013 season -- after all, what real challenges could the two-time champions face after claiming perhaps the most highly touted player ever with the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. Things, however, quickly began to unravel for the Mercury.
Getting shut out on opening day by the Chicago Sky (with a little help from their rookie sensation Elana Delle Donne) was an ominous sign for the struggle the Mercury would face for the rest of last season. Fans were treated to seeing Griner on the bench with both a knee and then later an ankle injury for a good chunk of the season. Penny Taylor, whose return to the lineup after sitting out 2012 with a knee injury who another reason for the last year's high hopes in the "Hotland," was sidelined once again due to a knee injury on her other knee (thank heavens she only has two knees).
Then there was the implosion of Ohio State product Samantha Prahalis, who ultimately caught the train to New York, a mid-season coaching change and a general lack of chemistry for the team to grapple with. Fans were left a bit stunned and confused, when about four weeks into the season, then-head coach Corey Gaines mentioned he would be going back to the run-and-gun style the team was used to.
Going back to the run-and-gun? What exactly had the Merc been doing -- or trying to do -- up until that point, wondered fans who'd been accustomed to little else since the Paul Westhead era?
Whatever it was, those in the front office were not happy. So unhappy, indeed, that on Aug. 8, the Mercury pink-slipped Gaines, replacing him with former Grand Canyon University coach Russ Pennell. It was most definitely a gear shift that threw everyone for a bit of a loop, especially players like DeWanna Bonner, then in her fifth year with the league, for whom whom Gaines had been the only head coach for whom she'd ever played as a pro. The club had to make a quick adjustment to Pennell, who barely knew their names during his first official game.
Still, it was only the height of the expectations that left fans and front office alike walking away from the 2013 with the sense the season had been a dismal failure. After all, the Mercury finished the season in the black (19-15), making the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. The talent on top was good enough that even a WNBA coaching neophyte like Pennell was able to lead the team past the L.A. Sparks in a three-game split, and all the way back to the Western Conference finals. There, however, the offensively dominant Minnesota Lynx made an easy 2-0 sweep of the Phoenix Mercury. Unlike 2012, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve didn’t even have to take her jacket off to spur Minnesota on to victory, but we digress.)
Just when Mercury fans were getting comfortable with Pennell, he announced he would be heading back to coach college (men's) basketball, which meant another inevitable coaching change was in the works. Soon after, team president Amber Cox also left the Mercury to head east and join the Big East conference as their associate commissioner of women's basketball. Vice President and former GM Ann Meyers also stepped down to return to the team's broadcast booth. It appeared that the team that had been barely holding it together during the season was in need of an off-season reboot.
2014's New-Look Mercury
It wasn’t long before the organization took swift action to put the pieces (back) together. Suns execs Jason Rowley and Jim Pitman were named president of business operations and General Manager, respectively. Once the new command structure was established, everything else fell into place: Four-time Olympian and WNBA veteran Sandy Brondello was added as head coach, and the economic picture brightened with the announcement of a new multi-year jersey sponsorship deal with Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, who took the place of the departed Lifelock. Look for Brondello to maintain the Mercury's heavy emphasis on speed and scoring (what coach is going to tell her player's not to score the basketball, after all -- especially, this high-flying crew), but to increase the emphasis on defense and assertiveness in attacking the iron.
But that’s not all. The Mercury added several new players -- the most important acquisition being that of six-year Aussie veteran Erin Phillips, brought in from the Indiana Fever for forward Lynetta Kizer as the team's new floor general, freeing up the team's marquee player, Diana Taurasi, who'd been filling the gap at the point, to do what she does the best (if you hadn't guessed it, that's shooting the basketball). All in all, the new brass have given the roster the most dramatic facelift it has seen in quite some time. Here’s a rundown:
Point guard: Erin Phillips, Tiffany Bias, Shay Murphy
As previously mentioned, Brondello addressed the need for a full-time point guard by acquiring Erin Phillips (whom the Mercury attempted to nab as a free agent in 2012, only to find their offer matched by the Indiana Fever). Last year, Taurasi has the responsibility of top scorer and playmaker, which resulted in her finishing the season not quite getting there in either category; she came in second in the league in scoring, but also second in turnovers. The addition of Phillips brings both veteran and championship experience to the point position, but more importantly, it lets Taurasi live comfortably on the perimeter.
The Mercury also signed Oklahoma State rookie standout Tiffany Bias as a solid backup point guard. Bias spent her senior year at Oklahoma State leading the Big 12 in minutes, and was second in both assists and steals. A pesky, high-energy, Bias calls to mind the notorious Debbie Black.
“I’ve liked what I’ve seen of her, thus far,” commented coach Brondello. “She’s very speedy. She’s a pass-first, shoot-second kind of point guard. Something a little different than what we have.”
Bias’ speediness is most likely attributed to her being a two-time state 200-meter champ, and a three-time 400-meter champ in high school. No doubt this rookie could be the secret weapon in the Mercury’s arsenal.
Bias could find herself fighting for minutes, however, as the Mercury also signed veteran combo guard Shay Murphy over the off season. Murphy could be equally well slotted at the two-spot, but we mention her here because, according to Brondello, Murphy was signed primarily to assist in "giving us a little more playmaking, because I thought that was important."
Wing: Diana Taurasi, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, Eshaya “Shay” Murphy, DeWanna Bonner, Penny Taylor
While the position of point guard may have been an issue in the past, the wing position has rarely, if ever, been a need for the Mercury. It is not often a question of who can play at the perimeter, but rather who can’t. The Mercury boast such versatility on their roster that it seems almost pointless to attempt to distinguish between shooting guards and small forwards for preview purposes: Pretty much every player at either position can equally well play the other and often does so. Moreover, the last two listed -- i.e., forwards Bonner and Taylor -- are also swing players who routinely fill in at the three and four spots.
Taurasi and Bonner have been the usual suspects, with Bonner occasionally sliding into the four spot. Brondello noted the importance of Bonner's ability to shift between the three and four:
“I want to use her versatility; I want to use her athleticism,” Bondello commented. “You know, playing with mismatches or isolating slower bigs on the perimeter.”
There have also been a few additions that potentially deepen an already well-covered position. Most important of these has been the acquisition of 5-9 Latvian Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, "one of the best shooters, spot-up shooters, in the world in my opinion,” according to Brondello. That's high praise coming from perhaps the best two-guard ever to suit up for the Opals.
However, it is not only shooting that Brondello was looking for in bringing Jekabsone-Zogata, who is entering her third year in the league having spent 2009 and 2010 in Connecticut and has been playing professionally overseas since 1998, on board in Phoenix.
Having coached Jekabsone-Zogota, the daughter of Latvian men's hoop star Andris Jekabsonse, in Russia, where Brondello serves as an assistant for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason, Brondello was confident in the newcomer's ability to add value on the Mercury roster. “She knows the style that I want to play,” Brondello confirmed. What's more, Brondello also knows the Phoenix newcomer will fit in well alongside Taurasi, who joined Jekabsone-Zogota in taking UMMC to the Euroleauge Women championship this year.
Forward: Penny Taylor; Candice Dupree, DeWanna Bonner, Mistie Bass
This is the position where there are probably the highest of expectations -- as well as possibility for disappointment. Whether one slots her as a 3 or a 4, health remains a a bit of a concern for Taylor, who is on the tail end of rehabbing the aforementioned knee and ankle injuries. Even if it means Taylor, who is still a question mark for opening day, starts late or comes off the bench for a time, Brondello is not keen on bringing back Taylor until she is ready, making sure her skills and body will be viable down the stretch.
No problem on the depth chart, however. Dupree and Bass are both ready to go. Dupree is the consistent team vet, and had by far the best games of any of the returning Phoenix core group at the inaugural preseason tournament in Orlando. Meanwhile, Bass brings what Brondello calls “toughness.” Bass’s numbers have been on the upswing in the past two years -- the 6-3 Duke product averaged 7.0 and 4.4 in 18 minutes per game off the bench in Connecticut last year -- and has rarely missed a game in the past three. After a highly successful WNBA offseason in France this year (Bass exploded for 27 points in one nailbiter for Lyon this spring), the hope is that both trends will persist in Phoenix.
Center: Brittney Griner, Ewelina Kobryn
“You’re going to see an improved Griner, she’ll just get better and better,” said Brondello.
That, of course, has been the story of Griner's basketball career. She arrived at Baylor with her unique stature and wing span, full of obvious potential, but still rough around the edges when it came to technique. She did everything her coaching staff asked of her and more, and added features to her game ever single season, emerging as two-time National Player of the Year.
The pros are a whole new level of play, and posts are notoriously slow to bring along -- a long-term investment of sorts. Griner had a few hiccups last season, some due due to struggle with injury, and WNBA fans have yet to see her to play to her full potential. But Griner did what she's always done -- went back to work. She continues to wear a knee brace, but is fully recovered, she told Full Court; the brace is just there for the confidence it provides her: "It's just for me," she said. "I'm fine."
She worked on strength training in the offseason, adding upper-body strength and a bit of bulk that will serve her well, reducing the likelihood of injury as she bangs around in the highly physical pro-level post night after night. She also brought along a personal position coach while playing in China to work on her post moves and hook shot, and seems to have acquired a bit more range. She certainly hasn't forgotten how to block shots -- or for that matter dunk -- both of which she did in the preseason tournament. She does need to learn how to do all of that without fouling, however.
Brondello seems confident that Griner's efforts will lead to improvement come opening day.
“She’s really been very coachable, like a sponge, taking in everything that we want her to do,” said Brondello. “I want her to play to her strength basically, I want her to get close to the rim, but I want her to be assertive down there.”
And should Griner find herself in foul trouble, the Mercury can now turn to a high-quality back-up at the center position, 6-4 Ewelina Kobryn of Poland, who spent 2011 and 2012 coming off the bench for Seattle, but saw too few minutes to make much of an impact. Kobryn is yet another international whom Brondello brought along with her from her Euroleague champion UMMC team in Russia.
“She’s tall, but she can run the floor, she can finish close to the rim,” Brondello observed. “She can shoot 3s. I don’t want her livin’ out there, but she can.”
Indeed, no coach would want a post player spending too much time out on the perimeter, but the ability to score from there can keep defenders from packing the paint and open up a variety of options inside.
With a re-vamped roster, Brondello is confident in her team's ultimate success. Not even the Mercury's slow start at the first-ever preseason WNBA tournament in Orlando, has her worried.
"We need more time together,” Brondello explained.
Indeed, the team was together little more than a week before heading to the tournament, and even then, not all players had arrived in camp.
“I didn’t have high expectations," said Brondello. "It was more like, 'Let’s evaluate where we’re at.'"
The results of that evaluation: "We still have a lot of work to do.”
Time will tell exactly how much work the team has to do this season, and whether it will be enough to lead them back to championship status, a pinnacle that seems more and more like a distant memory every passing season. The first test comes Saturday, May 17, when the homestanding Mercury take on the Seattle Storm at 10:00 p.m. EDT/7:00 p.m. local in U.S. Airways Center.
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