August 9, 2023
How Megan Gustafson reached another level with the Phoenix Mercury
Get to know the floor-stretching, rim-protecting, corgi-loving big
PHOENIX — On the night Diana Taurasi made history by becoming the first player in WNBA history to score 10,000 points last Thursday night, what she really wanted to talk about, seated at the podium following the game, was Megan Gustafson.
“The night wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about Megan,” Taurasi said. “She just always stays ready, and that is an amazing trait to have. She’s the ultimate professional [who] didn’t play much last year [and] went overseas, worked on her game. And when I see that and people around me that even those little stories can give me inspiration and Megan is a great player. She’s a great professional, great teammate, and I’m really happy for her to be able to show it on the biggest stage, because she works her butt off. She’s in the gym every single day before [and] after practice. And that is something in a teammate that you can look to, and they can help you to motivate you.”
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The Phoenix Mercury has had a tough season with an 8-20 record through 28 games and a coaching change in the midseason. However, one positive aspect is Gustafson’s chance to demonstrate her abilities as a backup center for Brittney Griner. With increased playing time this season, her self-assurance on the court has grown after getting opportunities to play overseas during the winter.
Gustafson’s impressive footwork and confidence have resulted in her receiving more playing time on the court, and she has succeeded even while dealing with plantar fasciitis in her foot.
“I think for me, especially just to bring energy and positivity, that’s something that all teachers need and whatever I can do to fill in the space to help my team,” Gustafson said. “At the end of the day, I’m playing for what’s on the front of my jersey, not on the back. So just staying ready to that’s really important. Getting an extra workout, whatever I need to do to stay ready.”
During her collegiate career, Gustafson was a player for the Iowa Hawkeyes. She had an exceptional senior year, earning the 2019 AP Player of the Year and Naismith Player of the Year awards.
Gustafson was selected at number 17 overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft by the Dallas Wings and averaged 2.9 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in her rookie year. She played for the Dallas Wings in the first two seasons of her WNBA career. After that, Gustafson played for the Washington Mystics in 2021 and averaged 4.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game while appearing in 11 games.
Gustafson joined the Phoenix Mercury in the 2022 WNBA season and appeared in 33 games, which she averaged 3.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 9.6 minutes per game. Now, in her second season as a member of the team, those per-game averages have jumped to 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 14.0 minutes per game. In the current season, her ability to protect the rim has increased her block percentage from 1.4 percent in 2022 to 2.6 percent.
“I think a lot of times it’s just about effort,” Gustafson said. “I’ve always tried to bring my best effort no matter whatever offense, defense, whatever it is also getting consistent minutes helps to get that flow going the rhythm, seeing what the game is giving you when it’s not. So I just tried to try to bring that effort.”
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Moriah Jefferson and Gustafson played as teammates for the Dallas Wings from 2019 to 2020, and the changes in Gustafson are evident to the veteran point guard.
“Just how proud of her I am,” Jefferson said. “I played with her before on previous teams and I’ve just seen her growth; her confidence continues to grow every day. And I think for us, she’d been a really important piece to our team, and I’m just excited to be able to get a chance to play with her again.”
Mercury interim head coach Nikki Blue praised Gustafson’s ability to stretch the floor, something hard to reconcile with her time at Iowa spent primarily around the basket, but the result of her endless work on it.
“Just to have her out on the floor as a capable three-point shooter is important for our team because it stretches out the defense,” Blue said. “It gives us a different look as a five-player, but just her impact on our team all together guarding the fives inside, she’s done a very good job and has proven that she deserves a spot in the WNBA.”
In the Mercury’s game at Footprint Center against the Chicago Sky on July 20, Gustafson scored 12 of the team’s 45 bench points and grabbed six rebounds, contributing to the team’s victory. Since then, she has played more minutes and scored in double digits in five out of the last seven games.
Mercury assistant coach and former WNBA player Tully Bevilaqua works closely with Gustafson and helps her develop in the game of basketball.
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“I really have enjoyed working with her because she’s a very coachable player,” Bevilaqua said. “We’re all about getting better and making really soaks in all the things that you try and bring in, adapt, and change. And she goes and puts it out there on the floor. So she’s a very coachable person. She’s a great person to start with. She’s a great teammate, and I have high praise for her and what she gives to this team.”
Not only is Gustafson getting more time on the court, she’s taking advantage of it.
“She’s making them whenever she goes out there on the floor, like she’s just given us 100% effort and making quality when she’s out there,” Bevilaqua said. “Obviously, her minutes has increased, so her numbers have increased because her minutes have increased, but she just has done a great job of sticking to her strengths and utilizing her strength to her advantage. So that is the correlation her numbers with the extended minutes now that she’s getting on the floor, but she didn’t get early in the season, and circumstances have changed that, and she’s just making whatever she has that mentality that ‘whenever I’m out there, it doesn’t matter how long it is or how short it is.'”
In the offseason, Gustafson travels overseas to play for the Olympiacos of the Greek Basketball League to develop her game. In the 2022-23 Euroleague Women’s season, she led the league in points per game with 22.6, averaging 9.4 rebounds and 32.4 minutes per game. Gustafson also led Olympiacos to a championship in this year’s Eurobasket tournament with a 3-0 sweep over Panathinaikos.
Gustafson offers players looking for opportunities to play on a WNBA team a piece of advice.
“I mean, it’s hard. It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” Gustafson said. “I think just staying positive throughout the entire experience, no matter if it’s good, if it’s bad, you know, there’s a lot of ups and downs in this league, but you have to stay consistent and just to stay focused and stay ready.”
Megan also has a four-year-old corgi named Pancake, who gained a significant following among WNBA fans and players on her Instagram and Twitter pages. She mentioned that she gave her corgi the name of her preferred breakfast dish, which happens to be pancakes.
In July, during the Mercury vs. Lynx game in Minnesota, a group of her family members attended the game to see her play. Some of them wore WNBA Jam shirts with both Megan and Pancake and made a poster with her dog that said, “The Mercury got that ‘dog’ in em.”
Megan found leaving Pancake with a sitter during the Phoenix Mercury’s away games tough. However, they are both accustomed to traveling extensively, and Megan assures Pancake can manage it well.
“Thankfully, I have some great sitters I’ve been able to find whether here in Phoenix or wherever I am, even when I’m overseas and stuff so it’s been great having that consistent help from family and friends, but it’s hard,” Megan said. “It’s hard always leaving her, but she’s a very adaptive dog. So she’s been all over the world. She knows how to handle it.”
Megan is not surprised that Pancake has a huge following on her Instagram and Twitter pages. She believes that the reason for this is Pancake’s ability to spread happiness to everyone by being herself.
“I mean, she’s adorable,” Megan said. “I’m not surprised that everyone loves her. She’s just a joy in my life. And I wanted to share that happiness with other people. So yeah, she’s just being her, and I’m really not surprised that everyone knows.”
Even on her big night, Taurasi cited the impact Pancake has on the team as well.
“I mean, we all know about Pancake, which is pretty funny. So anytime there’s a rap song, Pancake comes out [and] she goes, ‘shout out to my dog, buddy,’ which it’s pretty funny in a Pancake way,” Taurasi said.
Written by Aya Abdeen
Aya Abdeen is a student in sports journalism at Arizona State University and has been a contributing writer for The Next Hoops since December 2022. Her work has also appeared on AZPreps365.