May 5, 2022 

2022 WNBA season preview: Phoenix Mercury

Taurasi sets the course, as Griner is missed

A broken door summarized the pain of the Phoenix Mercury’s trip to the 2021 WNBA Finals, as they lost to the Chicago Sky, 3-1. The clear rationale was the health of the Mercury. Diana Taurasi played the entire 2021 playoffs with a broken bone in her foot and all-star wing Kia Nurse tore her ACL in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.

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Phoenix’s loss to the Sky pointed towards the end of the road for the three-time champions. In December, the Mercury announced they mutually parted ways with former head coach Sandy Brondello. She led the Mercury to its third championship in 2014, along with seven consecutive playoff appearances.

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The departure of Brondello raised some eyebrows but things started to heat up. The Mercury signed the 2021 WNBA scoring champion, Tina Charles from the Washington Mystics and traded for all-star Diamond DeShields in a three-team deal with Chicago and the Indiana Fever. Phoenix appeared to be the super team on the horizon as they were the only team in the WNBA with a starting lineup of four all-stars.

In February, disaster struck as all-star center Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia for allegedly having hashish oil in her luggage. Griner was playing for the Russian club basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg at the time.

Questions far bigger than basketball remain unanswered, while both her fellow players, the league and the U.S. government have taken steps this week to both honor her and work for her release. As a practical matter, though, it means the Mercury need to plan for a season without her.

Diana Taurasi, however, returns. The idea of retirement carried some weight but the passion for the game is too strong. “I debate every day whether I’m going to come back and I keep coming back,” Taurasi said on day one of training camp. “I still have this competitive fire. I still love to play basketball, I still love going to the gym.”

Who can light the competitive fire?

The team announced the hiring of head coach Vanessa Nygaard. Nygaard was a former Pac-10 player at Stanford University who played under legendary head coach Tara VanDerveer. She then became a WNBA player before heading into coaching, most notably as an assistant for the U.S Olympic team in 2017. In Nygaard’s introductory press conference, Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said he knew he made the right decision when hiring Nygaard. “What stands out about Vanessa (Nygaard) is her ability to build relationships, to communicate and hold team players accountable,” Pitman said.

Vanessa Nygaard and Jim Pitman holding up a Mercury jersey at her introductory press conference
New Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard holds up a Mercury jersey with general manager Jim Pitman at her introductory press conference on Monday. (Photo credit: Alex Simon)

How did Nygaard get the position over 20 other candidates?

What sealed the hiring was a conversation between Nygaard and Taurasi. Nygaard mentioned what she could do for Taurasi during her time in Phoenix. “Diana told me to tighten the screws here and pay attention to the details and bring in that kind of energy,” Nygaard said.

All-star Skylar Diggins-Smith felt a breath of fresh air when Nygaard was hired. “It’s really fresh and we’re learning from each other,” Diggins-Smith said. “It’s great that she has experience in this league as a player and I was really pleased with the staff that she put together with Crystal (Robinson) and Nikki (Blue).

What can we see from Diana Taurasi this season?

Coming up on her 18th WNBA season, one of the key questions is how often will Taurasi play in the regular season. “It’s working closely with her and working with our training staff and doing everything we can to have her ready to play in games,” Nygaard said. “It’s a day-to-day thing. That leadership has built a trust not just with Coach Nygaard, but with the players as well.

The signing of Tina Charles provides more than just on-court production, her former Liberty and now Mercury teammate Kia Nurse explained.

“With Tina, her leadership style will also help Breezy (Turner) because at the end of the day we’re still young players,” Nurse said. “We get to learn from these legends who have come into this league, and Tina is one of those people who’s willing to take you to the side and have a conversation with you to help you get better.”

The culture of leadership, experience and energy has lifted the Mercury’s odds, the team believes, to pursue a fourth WNBA championship.

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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