May 21, 2021 

Mercury’s emerging superstar spurs 2-1 road trip

Brianna Turner's continued growth, good passing are key to strong start for Phoenix

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 9: Brianna Turner #21 of the Phoenix Mercury and Brionna Jones #42 of the Connecticut Sun fight for position during the game. on September 9, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

Sandy Brondello was emphasizing just how important a strong start to the season was for the Phoenix Mercury in the days leading up to the season. Opening with three road games in five days was sure to be a challenge, but with everyone in their starting lineup healthy, it was time to pounce.

“We have to make sure we’re prepared, that we have to make sure that we have the right players to go in and win games early in the season,” Brondello said on May 8. “I think that’s important for us.”

While Sunday’s 86-78 loss at the Connecticut Sun surely leaves a bit of a sour taste still, the Mercury are returning to Phoenix with a 2-1 road trip, capped off by a thorough 91-70 win over the Mystics in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.

“Anytime you have a road trip like this — game, fly, game, fly, [game] — it takes a toll on your body,” said Kia Nurse. “This is a tough way to start the season, but I think we did a really good job this entire road trip.”

Nurse made note that it was an added difficulty for her to get back into game rhythm after not playing since the 2020 season in the bubble ended, which was the case for Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, too. You can forgive them for taking a moment or two to catch their breath.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CPD5kRcCAlw

But through three games where the offense is doing a lot right except making the shots, there’s one player is continuing to flash some otherworldly potential next to the superstar trio of Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Griner.

Brianna Turner’s emergence continues after the bubble

The Mercury already tend to have a smaller lineup than their opponents on a nightly basis, but were even smaller for this road trip because backup center Kia Vaughn is not with the team after finishing her overseas season. It makes the player who plays next to Griner perhaps the most game-changing person on this team, for better or worse.

And with one road trip down, Brianna Turner is showing she is up to the task.

Through three games, Turner has been sensational for the Mercury, contributing 31 points (making 14-of-20 shots from the field, too), grabbing a total of 32 rebounds and adding seven blocks. In Tuesday’s matchup against the Mystics, Turner tied a franchise record by grabbing 12 rebounds in the first half alone — including five offensive rebounds — in helping the Mercury grab 50 rebounds as a team in the game.

“She’s an absolute monster on the boards,” Nurse said. “It’s a lot about how she times the ball, how she reads things coming off the rim, shot selection. She’s really smart with that and she does a great job of that. When we played against each other in college, it was more annoying, but now I’m glad on the same side as her.”

The Mercury traded for Turner on Draft Day back in 2019 and didn’t really give her much playing time until halfway through the season. It only took a few games of getting an extended run on the floor to become a major rotation piece.

“Her development from when we first drafted her three years ago, and from not playing at the start of that season, then opportunities came and it was like, ‘Oh wow, she can be really good,’” Brondello said. “She’s shown that in college on the defensive end, she has a high basketball IQ, she gets scouts and how to do them. She takes pride in being a great defender.”

Turner has stayed in the starting lineup ever since and had a stellar season in the bubble, averaging 7.2 points, 9.0 rebounds (including 2.6 on the offensive end) and 2.0 blocks per game, earning a nod on the All-WNBA Defensive Team and finishing fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. She even set the franchise record for rebounds in a game, grabbing 21 against Connecticut on Sept. 9, 2020 — and that game came after Griner left the bubble, too.

Now with Griner back, the opportunities for Turner and Griner to be a dynamic frontcourt duo on the defensive end seem limitless.

‘We know rebounding would be a big part of our success this year,” Turner said. “We wanted to make sure we’re crashing the boards, whether it’s on offense or defense, and getting it out to our guards quick so we can push it out in transition.”

Brondello added, “She’s such an important player for us, especially on that defensive end with BG as the anchor. I think they’re just going to get better and better.”

With those superstars all more than capable on the offensive end, Turner has not been needed to do much of the work on that side of the ball. She doesn’t shoot from the outside, only attempt one 3-pointer in her time in the WNBA (and taking none in four seasons at Notre Dame). But is finding a solid niche at the moment, both by aggressively attacking the offensive glass and going back up with the ball and as a screener in the pick-and-roll game.

“I think her role is only going to continue to grow,” Nurse said. “She makes really good reads off of screen-and-rolls, she gets to the rim, her ability to put the ball in the hoop even while she’s jumping in mid-air. There’s just so much you can do with Breezy, and it’s been fantastic to be alongside her.”

Brondello agrees and isn’t going to put a limit on just how good Turner can get on that side of the ball, especially considering how quickly she’s taking a star turn on the defensive side.

“Offensively, she moves well without the ball, [but] we’re going to keep growing there because I think there’s other areas where she can get better and better,” Brondello said. “But look, the sky’s the limit for her. She’s such a great kid, I love coaching her, very coachable and she wants to be the best she can be.”

Offense builds on last season’s chemistry

All throughout training camp, the Mercury players and coaches were preaching how they felt way ahead of where they were last year. The quick ramp-up to the bubble, the arrival of a bunch of new players, Diggins-Smith’s injury that held her out of the mini-training camp, Griner leaving early from the bubble — all were factors that they hoped could be resolved this season.

Well, it is only three games, but that familiarity looks like it’s paying off already. The Mercury have had at least 20 assists in all three games so far, including 22 in Tuesday’s win. And they’ve also been relatively cold from the field in terms of shot-making, shooting just 31.5% from deep (23-of-73) and 43.4% from the field (86-of-198), though it doesn’t seem that Taurasi’s too worried about the missed shots.

“We really don’t worry about makes or misses,” Taurasi said in the mid-game interview with ESPN after the first quarter. “We just kind of shoot them and if they go in, great, and if not, you’ve got to make it up some other way.”

Taurasi’s attitude is clearly time-wide, and there appears to be a lot of confidence in what’s working right now, even in the eyes of a newcomer like Nurse.

“As a team, I think we do a really good job of taking whatever the defense gives us,” Nurse said. “When you have a Big 3 of Sky, DT and BG, they’re going to create a lot of attention and defenses are going to try and take the ball away from them. They’re really great at facilitating and finding one another, finding the open man.

“If we could knock down shots, that helps, but obviously if we move the ball well, we’re going to get open shots any given day because we’ve got great players, whether we’re knocking down the three or going inside.”

Now look, it’s only three games, so never forget this is a small sample size. But even while underperforming their shooting percentages from last season so far, they’ve still been able to get their point average to 82 points per game and their offensive rating is 104.4, good for fourth in the league (as of Wednesday). That is in part due to their ability to draw contact.

The Mercury have been right near the top in all three free throw categories (made, attempts and percentage) for years now, and after a relatively quiet night at the line in Minnesota on Friday (11-for-19), they’ve made 20 free throws in their last two games (20-for-24 in Connecticut, 20-for-25 at Washington). If they can reliably get to the line and make them at the rate they have done for years, it helps with the shooting woes.

And if their shooting starts to get as hot as their home city, where they will host the Sun on Friday? They won’t be a fun matchup for anyone right about now.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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