June 2, 2022 

What must change for the Phoenix Mercury?

And what can Karlie Samuelson's role be?

PHOENIX– The Phoenix Mercury’s underwhelming start is the culmination of unfortunate circumstances, along with Mercury all stars learning their new roles. While chemistry seems to be a work in progress, bigger problems arose on the court.

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How does this relate to basketball problems within the team?

The Mercury are used to sensitive topics and situations. Brittney Griner, their seven-time all-star, is wrongfully detained in Russia. There was an altercation between Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi after their 86-74 loss against the Las Vegas Aces. The altercation uncovered the underpinnings of what is happening. Taurasi is averaging her lowest career points per game at 14.3. Out of her 11.3 shot attempts, nearly seven of them are three-pointers. Not only that, but she is playing her most minutes per game since the 2014 season. Despite the greatness, at 39, it is hard to carry a team on your back every single game.

Diamond DeShields was the big splash for the Mercury, after acquiring her in a three-team trade. She missed the first game of the season due to playing overseas. Ever since she got back, she’s playing some of the best basketball of her career. Averaging 16.4 points and taking nearly 16 shots a game, her role is simple: score. The fifth-year pro is one of the best slashers in the game. Her athleticism and relentless finishing ability make her a top threat. In a loss against the Dallas Wings, DeShields returned to the basics. She scored 22 points, with all nine of her shots coming from the paint.

Going from red hot to ice cold

Phoenix has lost its last five games, four by double digits. Unfortunately for them, they only had two games where they had a full roster. Diggins-Smith, listed with a non-covid illness following her run-in with Taurasi, missed two consecutive games. Sophie Cunningham was in the league’s health and safety protocols and missed two games. Peddy sustained a back injury during her game against the Las Vegas Aces and also missed two contests. All of three of them are above average shooters from beyond the arc.

As a result, Phoenix signed Karlie Samuelson to a replacement contract before their game against the Sparks. The temporary acquisition of Samuelson added three-point shooting to a Phoenix roster lacking that. The team is shooting 32% from three on the season, marking the fourth-worst in the WNBA. Samuelson averaged 47.8% from three last season with the Sparks and the Seattle Storm.

Unlike Samuelson’s high percentage, Taurasi’s numbers so far from beyond the arc are shocking. Last season, She had only three games where she shot below 30% from three. So far this season, she has doubled that number. Similar to her running mate so far, DeShields has had her struggles throughout her career from three. As primarily a slasher, she isn’t asked to take many threes. At most, she had 11 games where she shot three or more three-pointers. In seven games, five of those include three or more triples. But she’s not making them — just a 25 percent clip so far.

How long do Mercury have to turn it around?

Even though a 2-6 record raises eyebrows, history is on the Mercury’s side. Since 2013, they have finished as the fifth seed or higher. The team has been to the finals twice since then, and won the WNBA Finals in 2014. Newcomers DeShields and Tina Charles have found their groove since joining the team. She’s also the second leading scorer on the team, only behind Diggins-Smith and her 17.2 points. Charles is averaging 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds, while only averaging 13 shots per game. That’s her lowest total since her rookie year with the Connecticut Sun. Charles has been forced outside of the paint due to the team falling behind in games. Even though she talked about stretching the floor, her offensive prowess comes from the low block. Her free throw attempts are the lowest of her career, at about three per game. Even though she knocks them down at a 84% clip, those numbers aren’t enough. The eight-time all-star needs more touches in the paint to do her damage.

Highly Anticipated Finals Rematch

The Mercury’s last game against the Chicago Sky brought flashbacks of their games against Seattle. Flawless ball movement, player cutting to the basket and a dominant force inside. Taurasi was ejected with about three minutes left in the first half. That was all Phoenix needed for get the engine rolling. They scored 31 points in the third quarter, more than their combined points in the first half. Charles scored nine of her 25, with all but one shot coming inside the arc. She was the only dominant scoring force, as the starting lineup only had two more points than Charles alone. However, the defensive effort for perhaps the first time all season. In that third quarter, the Mercury held Chicago to 16 points on 6for-17 in the second quarter. Despite the loss, DeShields explained where the problems lie. “Offense is not really our problem,” DeShields said. “I was really proud of our defense and how Tina (Charles) explained our communication.”

Some point to the lack of chemistry as the problem, it doesn’t help when star players have to shift roles. Last season, the Mercury shot close to league average from three, knocking in 34% of all their triples. The script is flipped, as they have shot 32% this season while having more authority in the paint with DeShields and Charles. They are middle of the pack in the WNBA in field goal percentage at 43.1%. Even with the below-par number from beyond the arc, their two-point percentage is at almost 50%. The saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That’s what the team needs to do. Stick to the bread and butter of letting your stars attack the paint and start knocking down shots from beyond.

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.

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