May 27, 2021
How the Mercury will adjust without Diana Taurasi
Sandy Brondello on Taurasi's injury, how the playmaking shifts, Vaughn's return and more
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Diana Taurasi may have been willing to play through a fracture to her sternum for the Phoenix Mercury, even if it was going to be painful.
But once head coach Sandy Brondello heard about what the injury was, her own experience with the exact same injury made it an easy decision to not push it.
“Being someone that’s had a fractured manubrium and played a full season because no one knew I was really injured … [it’s] extremely painful,” Brondello said when speaking for the first time since news of Taurasi’s injury broke. “I struggled back in 2002, and I had to take a long time off because I played through it.
“Diana’s played through so much and that’s how much of a warrior she is. She’d keep playing, but we shut her down because the risk is too high. Let’s get her healthy, get her back before the Olympic break and get her in rhythm.”
The precautionary move may turn out to be the right one in the long run, but life without their franchise icon for at least the next four weeks started Wednesday with an 85-79 loss to the Las Vegas Aces in Phoenix. The Mercury led 75-71 with 4:10 left, but the Aces finished off the night on a 14-4 run to flip a four-point deficit into a six-point win.
Brondello came away from the night feeling hopeful about where her team is without Taurasi, but also rued the missed chance to take a game from a top contender in the league.
“It’s a disappointing end to the game,” Brondello said. “I thought we had good control of it, but they made plays and we didn’t. We didn’t execute so well.”
Skylar Diggins-Smith added, “I just feel like, close games like this, you want to finish them out strong when you do all of that. We need to do a better job finishing out the game, but the WNBA’s schedule is relentless, so you’ve got to have short-term memory.”
And while Brondello says the team will grow from this, both her and Diggins-Smith said the Aces scoring 24 points off of the Mercury’s 13 turnovers is unacceptable.
“You can’t have that,” Diggins-Smith said of the turnovers and the way Las Vegas capitalized on them. “I thought we were kind of in control the whole game, which is why I’m so pissed. We didn’t close the game out right, so that’s just on me.”
Diggins-Smith may be taking the blame for the loss, but it’s clear she’s going to be a key part of the solution for how the Mercury try to keep winning games and avoid slipping any farther below .500 than their current 2-3 record. Here’s more on how that’ll look, plus some other roster news on a busy Wednesday in the Valley of the Sun.
How the playmaking shifts without Taurasi
Taurasi is obviously the league’s all-time leading scorer, but she’s been a world class distributor and facilitator on the offensive side for a long time now, too. Without her, the Mercury are down to only two players they seem to truly trust with significant ball-handling duties in Diggins-Smith and backup point guard Shey Peddy.
Diggins-Smith seemed to take on that role with aplomb in the first game without Taurasi, distributing 11 assists, including eight in the first half alone. It’s definitely going to be a conscious effort for her to be a key distributor of the basketball.
“I think we all need to be threats when we have the basketball, but it’s going to start with me being aggressive,” Diggins-Smith said. “I don’t want to say selfish, but coming off those screens really aggressive, looking to attack, draw [defenders], looking for my shot but also looking for my teammates.”
But even with Taurasi healthy, Brittney Griner was always going to be a major feature in the Mercury offense. But even in a feature matchup against Las Vegas center Liz Cambage, Griner scored 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, while also holding Cambage to 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting.
“She dominated tonight, and that’s what she can do,” Diggins-Smith said of Griner. “We have to continue to establish her early. I thought she was inside, she was outside. I loved how aggressive she was. That’s what she can do every night. We know that she’s a 20-and-10 player in this league and she can do whatever she wants to do.
“I thought she was really engaged on both ends tonight. I love seeing that from BG and we’ve just got to continue to match that.”
At one point, Griner took a shot to her chest and was clutching at it while gingerly walking back to the bench — which must’ve felt like deja vu for the Mercury after Taurasi’s injury — but she only sat momentarily and played the rest of the game.
Peddy also had a solid first night as Phoenix’s lone backup guard for the time being, catching fire for a 10-point third quarter and collecting 12 points on the night. And while it’s obviously not what Phoenix was hoping to have, but the ball ending up in Diggins-Smith’s hands more often is a pretty good safety net without Taurasi.
“She’s very capable of that. That’s what she’s done in the past. She’s trying to get her groove back, too,” Brondello said. “I thought Sky had a really good game tonight.”
And Diggins-Smith? She’s definitely comfortable with the role.
“I’m a playmaker in this league,” Diggins-Smith. “That’s what I do. I can shoot, I can pass, I can set the offense up, I can get the ball to who needs the ball. I know I can bring that to the table, and that’s not a big deal for me.”
Vaughn rejoins at pivotal point
Backup center Kia Vaughn rejoined the Mercury on Wednesday after finishing up her season in Turkey. Vaughn’s team, Fenerbahce, won the Turkish league title but had to wait for almost three weeks because of COVID issues to finish the season, delaying her arrival back to the United States by quite a bit and creating quite a challenging ramp-up back to the Mercury.
“It was long — it was very drawn out,” Vaughn said of the elongated schedule. “Sitting around here and waiting, it was kind of tough. But now, it’s time to go.”
With the end of that season, Vaughn also announced her retirement from overseas play, something she said was “bittersweet.”
“Now, I’m going to have all of this time and I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do,” Vaughn said with a smile. “It’s exciting because I’ll have more time with my family. I’m excited about holidays and the little things. But I’m definitely going to miss traveling, my teammates over there, coaches.”
Vaughn then paused and cracked with a laugh, “But I’ll let you know how my body feels, becuase I bet it’ll feel pretty good.”
Vaughn also joked about being reunited with Kia Nurse, teammates in New York in 2018. Back on that Liberty team, there was also Kiah Stokes, leading to a fun human-interest angle, but regrettably, no sponsorship deal.
“I’m happy to be her teammate again,” Vaughn said. “I’m not happy about the Kia-Kia thing, but I’m happy to be her teammate again. We have to figure out if we’re going to be called Vaughn, Nurse or something else I don’t know.”
In her first action with the Mercury, Vaughn tallied eight points, six rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes off the bench. On the offensive end, Vaughn displayed an impressive midrange jumper, with all four of her made baskets on the night coming from the mid-range.
Vaughn displayed good defensive intuition when helping guard Las Vegas’ twin towers of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Her communication on the defensive end was noticeable both when she was on the court and while she was on the bench, giving the Mercury a good boost.
“[She’s] an instant spark,” Mercury forward Megan Walker said. “I played against her in Fener [in the EuroLeague third place game], so I’ve watched her and what she can bring to a team. I’m glad to be on her side now. She’s hitting those mid-range jumpers, banging down low and just being vocal. I think we really needed that.”
From the outside looking in, it was quite a solid night for a player’s first day re-acclimating to a team, though her head coach that played her for all that wasn’t surprised by it.
“It’s everything I expected from Kia,” Brondello said. “She’s a veteran player, an experienced player, she has high IQ. She came out and gave us exactly what we needed. It allows us to be a bit more aggressive on the pick-and-roll — she’s a great defender. She’s capable of shooting the mid-range shot, too.”
On the offensive end, Vaughn displayed an impressive midrange jumper, with all four of her made baskets on the night coming from the mid-range. But after the game, Vaughn was a tad critical of her own performance, but chalked it up more to the rushed return to action.
“I just feel like I’m a step slower, but I know that will come with time and with game time too, especially with re-learning plays, everything like that,” Vaughn said. “Overall, I think I just took the shots that were there for me in the offense. Defensively, I have to get more solid, and I love defense first. Just some little things that I know will change over time.”
Still, it’s quite obvious that the Mercury think quite highly of Vaughn and will be plugging her into a rather sizable role in the rotation. The minutes she got seemed to come at the expense of Alanna Smith, who didn’t play at all on the night as the Mercury went with an 8-player rotation. Smith’s minutes have fluctuated drastically to start the year, playing less than a minute in the May 14 season opener and just five minutes on May 16, but taking on 20 minutes in Washington on May 18.
She then only played nine minutes in the home opener against Connecticut on May 21 and was “DNP — Coach’s decision” on Wednesday (which, I’d like to point out, comes just one day after it was officially announced that Brondello had selected Smith to Australia’s Opals basketball team for the Olympics in Tokyo). She didn’t just warm up and sit for the entire night, however. Less than 20 minutes after Wednesday’s game, Smith was back out on the court with Mercury assistant coaches Julie Hairgrove and Chasity Melvin, doing a wide assortment of offensive drills while still in uniform.
Mercury to shuffle back end of the roster
With the addition of Vaughn but the temporary loss of Taurasi, the Mercury seem set to make a swap of hardship exemption players to help fill the guard spot. The team waived forward Cierra Burdick and is set to add guard Haley Gorecki, which was first reported by Rachel Galligan. While the move won’t be official until Thursday, Brondello referenced Galligan’s report when asked about roster moves.
“It’s no big secret, we’re bringing in a hardship player who obviously hurt us in training camp,” Brondello said. “We’re hopeful that she’ll be a good fit. That’s all we can say — it’ll be released tomorrow, even though you guys all know who it is, so it’s not big secret, is it?”
What Brondello is referencing with training camp is how Gorecki was on the Seattle Storm’s training camp roster and played against the Mercury twice in the preseason. She clearly left a good impression in her two appearances, tallying seven points on 2-of-3 shooting from deep in 15 minutes on May 8 in Phoenix before following it up with 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from 3-point range in 15 minutes during a May 10 scrimmage in Seattle.
A graduate of Duke University, Gorecki was a third-round pick of the Storm in the 2020 WNBA Draft but was cut before the bubble began. She played in Spain in the Fall of 2020 for Zaragoza, averaging nine points, four rebounds, 2.5 assists and 26 minutes per game in 13 games.
It’s unclear, as of now, what protocols the 6’ guard will have to go through and how soon she could join the team, but the Mercury will be playing in Chicago against the Sky on Tuesday, June 1 in the first of a home-and-home that week. Gorecki is a native of Chicago who would surely welcome the chance to be dressed for a WNBA game in her hometown.