June 17, 2022
Coaching threes and making threes: a Phoenix Mercury guide to self-improvement
The all-time three point scorer and a three-point coaching philosophy leads to... more threes
When the clock hit all zeros, the Phoenix Mercury walked out of Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indiana having won four of their last five with an established identity: consistency on threes.
“Diana is the leading three point shooter in the history of the game, so we’re gonna take threes,” Nygaard said after the game. “My college coach (Tara VanDerveer at Stanford) taught me that three is better than two,” Nygaard said. “It opens up the floor more for our scorers when we consistently hit that shot and the games we’ve hit those open threes, we’ve been successful.”
Nygaard definitely implemented her three-point philosophy, as Phoenix ranks top-five in points coming from threes at 31.5%. Taurasi takes the most threes in the league with 125 and makes the second-highest amount with 42. She only trails Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum with 45 threes.
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While the three has been essential for the Mercury over the last five games, it wasn’t always like that. In the month of May, Phoenix was sixth in the WNBA in total three-point shots, making 70 while being ninth in three-point percentage, shooting 32%. In the month of June, the Mercury rank second in threes made (57) and in attempts (170) while having the fifth best shooting percentage from outside the arc (33.5%).
However, Nygaard explained that when star center Tina Charles missed two games against the Connecticut Sun and Los Angeles Sparks due to a right shoulder injury, the emphasis of the 3-point shot radiated. “We had to get creative,” Nygaard said. “We were playing a little bit more through our guards and trying to share the ball a little bit more. And as we moved the ball more, we got more threes.”
Threes all around
What was interesting was once Charles recovered, the team didn’t adjust their style. As a matter of fact, the eight-time all-star embraced it. Over the past two seasons, Charles added a consistent three-point shot and shooting more and more threes since the 2021 season. In four games since her injury on May 31, she made ten threes and is shooting 41.6% from that range. After Phoenix’s 93-80 victory over the Indiana Fever, Charles explained the philosophy to unleash the three.
“We’re sharing the ball more and we’re just making sure that we’re getting everyone involved,” Charles said postgame. “Everyone starts feeling good about themselves and get comfortable with the offense.”
Before playing the Washington Mystics on Tuesday, Brianna Turner described how the team is continuing to find their identity. “We’ve been playing really well together lately,” Turner told The Next. “Everyone is on the same page.”
Everyone being together is what Skylar Diggins-Smith was keen on after the win against Indiana. “When we’re playing collectively and getting out in transition, that’s really in my opinion our bread and butter when we can get up and down and be on the attack for each other, creating for each other, and moving the ball,” Diggins-Smith said.
Quality, not quantity bench minutes
Sophie Cunningham and teammate Shey Peddy are the team’s primary weapons among the non-starters, averaging 51.8% of the bench’s total points. Also, Peddy is playing 22.9 minutes and Cunningham 22.4. No other player exceeds 11 minutes off the bench per game.
But players like Megan Gustafson and Jennie Simms also bring value. They provide efficient scoring from three, too — the former rim-centered Gustafson is the best perimeter shooter by percentage on the Mercury, hitting 41.7% of her threes.
Gustafson only averages 9.5 minutes a game for the team. Simms adds three-point scoring since signing her second hardship contract with Phoenix on June 9. During the last three games, Simms shot 2-for-5 from three while only averaging 9.3 minutes a game.
When asked about the lack of minutes for her bench players, Nygaard kept it very simple. “Without having Sophie, without having Kia Nurse and without having Brittney Griner, our bench is a little bit different than other benches,” Nygaard said. “Majority of our scorers are in the starting lineup.”
She isn’t wrong. Phoenix is second in total minutes played by a starting lineup with 139, only trailing the Aces. Out of all the starting lineup combinations playing more than 10 games, the Mercury’s traditional starting five with Diggins-Smith, Taurasi, Turner, Charles and Diamond DeShields averages 26.1 points, the fifth-most in the league.
Peddy’s role is being a tenacious defender while knocking down three-point shots. Gustafson’s role is to grab rebounds and hustle, while knocking down shots occasionally. Even with these specific roles, Nygaard went into greater detail about benches across the WNBA and understanding what their role is on any given night.
“Let’s say 80% of the people who are in the league are not stars. So if you’re in that 80%, you need to understand your role,” Nygaard said. “And that doesn’t mean that we don’t take open shots. That doesn’t mean that we don’t share the ball and find shots for those people. But I think it’s important that we understand the specific roles each player has.”
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.