August 7, 2020 

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough provides needed depth for Phoenix Mercury

Stand-in for Bria Hartley more than held her own

PALMETTO, FL – AUGUST 6: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury shoots the ball against the Chicago Sky on August 6, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

During training camp, Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said that the team needed to be “ten strong.”’ On Thursday, with leading scorer Bria Hartley out with a foot injury, they had to re-evaluate what that meant.

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“We’re still 10 strong,” Brondello said as the team prepared to face the Chicago Sky with nine healthy players.

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, another of the Mercury’s less-heralded off-season acquisitions, went out and proved it. Walker-Kimbrough had 17 points off the bench and a +19 in plus/minus. Only fellow reserve Alanna Smith with a +22 ranked higher for the Mercury in their 96-86 victory over the Chicago Sky.

“I saw a lot of positives today,” Brondello said. “You know, when you can rely on your bench like that it’s fantastic.”

Hartley has been a revelation in the early going, not only leading the Mercury in scoring, but coming in second in the WNBA. Her coach has also praised her skill on defense and as a facilitator, stating several times that she deserved to be a starter.

The short bench didn’t start with Hartley’s sore Achilles tendon. The Mercury expected to enter training camp with 11 players, opting to sign several veterans to bigger contracts and go with a shorter bench. Then, free-agent signee Jessica Breland was granted a medical exemption for the season.

The Hartley injury simply drained the team’s depth further.

But having the kind of versatility that helped them overcome those setbacks was built into the plan.

“When (general manager) Jim (Pitman) and I spoke in the offseason about the players we wanted it was we want to get more athletic, we wanted toughness, we wanted playmaking, we wanted 3-point shooting,” Brondello said. “And I think we did a good job of putting it together with the salary cap that we had.”

The genesis of that plan goes back to last season when the Mercury lost to the Chicago Sky in the playoffs.

“We knew that we needed to get better,” Brondello said. “And Chicago had our number. They’ve had our number for the last two years to be quite honest. They’re a very good team. And you know they play hard and they are quite versatile too. They’ve got shooters, stretch post players and they’ve got athletes. But you know, it was good for us to get that. They’ve been a little bogey team for us.”

Brittney Griner also had the bitter taste of last year still in her mouth.

“I definitely had that on my mind coming into this game how it ended,” she said. “I got hurt that game, couldn’t kind of finish the whole game and it was just in the back of my mind. So I wanted to really come out this first time actually playing them since then, really just make a stand.”

With Walker-Kimbrough and Smith providing tough minutes off the bench, the Mercury’s Big Three of Griner, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith were able to go out and dominate the way everyone expected when the team traded for Diggins-Smith.

Griner and Taurasi each put up 22 points to lead the team in scoring. Diggins-Smith added 17 to match Walker-Kimbrough. Griner led the team on the boards with eight, while Taurasi dished out six assists to pace the club.

The versatility of Walker-Kimbrough and Smith were on display throughout. The two entered the game together at the 2:25 mark in the first quarter.

Walker-Kimbrough made her presence felt first, getting the and-1 with 2:14 to go in the opening stanza. On the Mercury’s next offensive possession, it was Smith making a nice pass to Sophie Cunningham for the open 3.

Driving to the basket, stealing the ball, blocking shots, dishing to teammates. The two young players played the roles they were asked to play as the three stars showed why they’re some of the best in the league.

“We started the first two games nowhere near (where) we needed to,” Brondello said. “But just simplify things and making sure we’re just working hard every single possession and playing as a team. That’s been great. We have to put that as our identity. And you see that we’re getting more cohesive on the offensive end.”

That 0-2 start is fading into the rearview mirror as the team put the finishing touches on a 4-0 run.

“Starting 0-2, I think that’s what lit a fire underneath our asses,” Griner said. “It was either we keep losing and this be a really long, bad season or we buckle down and make the adjustment.”

Written by Kim Doss

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