March 19, 2021 

After 2020 hiccup, Phoenix Mercury look to get Big Three in ‘good rhythm’

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Brittney Griner will be back for the start of the 2021 WNBA season

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Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury handles the ball against the Las Vegas Aces on September 1, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Like most WNBA teams, the Phoenix Mercury are struggling with a unique and lingering question from 2020: What should be taken away from the Wubble?

From a psychological standpoint, very little, most would hope. But from a player evaluation perspective, there is no choice but to move forward based on the small 22-game sample and the results of the playoffs.

The Mercury experienced both sides of that dynamic, with Brittney Griner leaving Bradenton after six games to handle personal matters and, as she has since explained, commit to improving her mental health. They also saw a massive breakout season from Brianna Turner in her second season as well as some real chemistry built between Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

So while Griner is expected to be back in 2021, Phoenix will play faster and more spread out this season.

“We gained a lot of chemistry in that second half (of last season) and we just needed to continue to build on that,” head coach Sandy Brondello told reporters on Wednesday. “In (GM) Jim (Pitman) and I’s discussions at the end of the year … we knew we needed more shooters around our play-makers.”

With that in mind, the Mercury prioritized trading for Kia Nurse, who became expendable in New York after the Liberty drafted Sabrina Ionescu. In Nurse, the Mercury acquire a player with the size at 6’ to play the wing and who has taken nearly five three-pointers per game over her three-year WNBA career. Brondello reiterated that Nurse will start on the wing in 2021 alongside Phoenix’s All-Star guard duo.

As has been the case since Penny Taylor retired and Candice Dupree left the team in the years after the Mercury’s last championship in 2014, the offseason brought a lot of turnover and a lot of work for Brondello and her coaching staff. Not only will the team look to integrate Griner into a quicker, more side-to-side offense, but also a new starter in Nurse as well as backup forward Megan Walker, also acquired in the trade with New York.

That brings up an obvious question: Can the chemistry Brondello praised from Bradenton carry over to 2021?

“I expect it to be better than where it was heading into last year,” Brondello said, noting that both Taurasi and Diggins-Smith were coming off extended absences at that time, with few practice days to develop cohesion. “The more we played, the better we got.”

Brondello added that Diggins-Smith (who has been broadcasting NBA games in Phoenix), Taurasi, Nurse and combo guard Bria Hartley, who is recovering from an ACL tear, will all be back in Phoenix soon to start working out together. Still, others like Griner, Turner and Alanna Smith are competing overseas, while Hartley isn’t expected to be fully recovered from the knee surgery by opening night.

The Mercury aren’t in perfect position to hit the ground running, but their problems now can be categorized more as “regular WNBA stuff” as opposed to “disaster,” which could have been the slogan for their 2020.

The team’s attention can instead turn toward winning another championship during the remaining years of Taurasi’s career. The future Hall of Famer is giving them plenty even in her late 30s, and this year’s team could be the deepest and most talented they’ve had in a while. The Mercury can likely take aim at the postseason, but a title run would require a successful adaptation to a changing game.

The coach admitted Phoenix can no longer rely on the dump-it-to-Griner style that got them to the league semifinals in 2018. And while the emergence of Turner will help Phoenix defend versatile bigs like Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, Brondello admitted the need to change up her philosophies as well.

“That’s what makes this exciting and that’s the challenge I love,” Brondello said. “I really like our team. We’ve got the right players that fit our Big Three.

“My task is making sure we’ve got each player in good rhythm so that we can continue to play really good basketball.”

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