August 15, 2022
What is the future for Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith in Phoenix?
Constant adjustments prepared the Phoenix Mercury to get ready for anything
PHOENIX – On the heels of a tumultuous season, the Phoenix Mercury face continued uncertainty in the months ahead as they move into a first-round playoff series this week against the Las Vegas Aces. Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia. Diana Taurasi, age 40, is out due to injury and headed to free agency. The one max player under contract for next year is Skylar Diggins-Smith. And head coach Vanessa Nygaard did not offer a vote of confidence about Diggins-Smith’s future in Phoenix, either.
“I’m not too sure right now,” Nygaard said. “We’re not sure what that looks like right now. But (going into the playoffs), we’re going to prepare with the group that we have. And you know, get ready for anything.”
Simply put: the chaos in Phoenix isn’t close to settled. And a league source tells The Next that Diggins-Smith is not expected to return for the playoffs.
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Let’s rewind back to February. Phoenix signed the 2021 scoring champion, Tina Charles. As a result, the Mercury would be the only team with four all-stars in the starting lineup in the entire WNBA.
Sadly, it wouldn’t come to fruition in a heartbreaking fashion. Seven-time all-star and Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia after allegedly carrying hashish oil in her luggage. The U.S. Department of State has since declared her “wrongfully detained.”
The mood of the season was set. Lights were on, cameras recording and microphones powered on to hear Taurasi’s thoughts. She kept her head down and shared her subtle response to the news of Griner. “It’s a very delicate situation,” Taurasi said. “A delicate situation.”
This wasn’t the only thing that was on Taurasi’s mind. With Penny Taylor retiring in 2016, the question arose if her spouse would follow suit. So at the start of training camp, Taurasi provided an honest thought about her retirement.
“Yeah, I’m still debating that today,” Taurasi said, chuckling. “I debate every day whether I’m going to come back and I keep coming back to us. I still have this competitive fire, still love to play basketball and still love coming to the gym. You know, and things change as you get older. The work you have to put in gets harder, for stuff you have to do off the court is just as important as being on the court.”
One day after Taurasi spoke, Diggins-Smith was more expressive about the matter. “There’s not a day that we don’t think about her. It’s hard and it sucks. And you guys can keep asking us and it’s emotional to deal with, it’s triggering,” Diggins-Smith said. “But we love our sister; we miss our sister, we’re gonna continue to play in her honor until she gets back.”
The 2013 third overall pick has done that and then some. She entered the MVP conversation by averaging 19.7 points, 5.5 assists and a career-high in rebounds and blocks. Diggins-Smith also possesses the fifth highest usage rate (28.4%), according to Her Hoop Stats.
But that does not tell the entire story. Diggins-Smith and Taurasi got into it on the bench during a game. Diggins-Smith took to Twitter and called her head coach Vanessa Nygaard a clown after Nygaard expressed shock over Taurasi being left out of the game.
Nygaard, under pressure from Mercury management, according to a league source, tells The Next that she ultimately apologized to Diggins-Smith.
Taurasi has set records yet again. In her game against the Los Angeles Sparks in late July, she became the first WNBA player to score 30+ at age 40 or older. She had 12 games of scoring 20+ in the 2022 season, still proving she has the scoring chops. However, a right quad injury cut Taurasi short against the Connecticut Sun. Teammates felt the energy zap once the franchise’s all-time leading scorer left the court, especially forward Sophie Cunningham.
“That’s been the story of this year, you know, it’s one thing after another. I think we’ve done a great job of just trying to kind of cut out all the stuff and try to focus on the people we do have tried to stay positive and still trying to compete at a really high level,” Cunningham said postgame. “It’s hard when you don’t have some of your main players.”
When it couldn’t get worse, it did. Diggins-Smith would miss the final four games of the regular season due to personal reasons. But, before she left the team, she and the entire Phoenix Mercury embarked on an emotional day before facing Connecticut. In the morning, teammates gathered around a television, seeing Griner only through the screen.
Nygaard said the team didn’t want to play the game. Diggins-Smith, after the game, rocked back and forth.
“You guys asking these questions don’t really take away from our trauma; you just add to our trauma,” Diggins-Smith explained. “So we can break down and cry in front of y’all! So you can see how we feel. I don’t know what else to really say about it? It’s our sister. This is not some random Jane off the street. Not anything we’re politicizing. So this is a human being and this is our real-life friend, real-life sister.”
With their games against the Dallas Wings and Chicago Sky two of the most critical, the pressure felt immense. Cunningham expanded on the absence of Diggins-Smith pregame against the Dallas Wings. “We wish her (Diggins-Smith) well. We hope she’s okay. We’re praying for her and we’re thinking about her,” Cunningham said.
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As Cunningham spoke, Mercury fans were pouring into the arena on Friday. They were mostly wearing Diggins-Smith and Taurasi jerseys. After looking into the stands, the 2019 second-round pick collected her thoughts and continued explaining how the team is handling the situation.
“For us as a team, it’s just another rock in the road, right? You know, we’ve had a roller coaster of a year and yeah, people leave and people get hurt. We have a different roster every week and a half. So I think our team is pretty used to, you know, just having to come together as a team and fighting through adversity and putting the best foot forward with the people we have,” Cunningham said.
About fifteen minutes afterward, Shey Peddy sat down and expressed a similar stance as her running mate. “You don’t have a choice to adjust. It’s something we can’t control, but you know, just gotta move forward,” Peddy said. “We had a lot of ups and downs this whole season, a lot of obstacles to get over and just make the best out of it.”
Will Taurasi return?
Fast forward to the last regular season practice in August. Once again, Taurasi shared her offseason plans and presented the same passion she shared back in April. “I still think at 40 and after playing all these years, I still feel like I can get better,” Taurasi said. “After every game, I ordered myself and I try to be a better teammate, a better basketball player and I come to the gym every day and try to get better.”
Nygaard hopped in the media scrum and received the same question involving Taurasi. “I think D (Taurasi) has nothing to prove, so it’s just what she wants,” Nygaard said. “She enjoys the game and she’s playing well. And I know she loves to play. So as long as she wants to play, there’s always a good place for her to play here.”
Who will be with her, should Taurasi return, remains anyone’s guess.
Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.
Written by Hayden Cilley
Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.