May 15, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: Phoenix Mercury

Plenty of questions entering 2023, but confidence is as high as ever

The 2023 Phoenix Mercury come into the season surrounded by a cloud of mystery.

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It would not be shocking to see this year’s squad contend for a title but it would also not be surprising to see the team miss the playoffs altogether. There are many unknowns surrounding this team that will dictate the amount of success Phoenix will have in 2023.

Will Brittney Griner return to dominant form in 2023?

The first and most significant unknown is how Brittney Griner will play. The seven-time All-Star center was at the height of her powers in the 2021 season. In 30 games that year, she averaged 20.5 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game. She finished second in MVP voting and led a 19-13 Phoenix team on a surprising run to the WNBA Finals. However, as it has been well-documented, Griner missed the entire 2022 season after being wrongfully detained in Russia.

So, it will be interesting to see if she returns to her 2021 form or shows rust after not playing last season. Griner was honest with where she is in her progress.

“I know what I can do,” Griner said after the first day of training camp. “Am I where I want to be? No. … So, just kind of giving myself some grace and my teammates just picking me up.”

Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard was bullish on Griner, saying she is still one of the best players in the world.

“She’s one of the most dominant players in the world,” Nygaard said. “Even 10 months off she’s one of the best players that anyone has ever seen. We’re glad she’s on our team.”

Can Diana Taurasi remain healthy?

Another unknown is if Diana Taurasi will be able to remain healthy for the full season. Taurasi, who will be 41 in June, showed she can still play last year as she averaged 16.7 PPG in 31 games played.

However, she missed the last five games of the regular season and both Mercury playoff games with an injured quad. Overall, she’s played in just 72 of the 124 games (58%) over the last four seasons.

Her health is paramount to the success of Phoenix’s 2023 team, but it remains to be seen if she can stay healthy enough to contribute down the stretch. But the player voted as the WNBA’s “GOAT” in 2021 isn’t lacking for confidence entering her 20th professional season.

“I’ve worked my ass off the last six months to get on the court and I’m ready to have one of my best years ever,” Taurasi said.

Nygaard admitted that the plan for this season includes some “load management” — as in, scheduled rest and missed games — for the team’s veterans like Taurasi.

“I think in our world we call that load management, right?” Nygaard said. “And so there’s actually a lot of tech that’s involved in that now which is really exciting. But we have to be aware of our veteran players. They also probably don’t need to do a lot of reps of traditional drills that maybe some of the younger players need to do. So just making sure we’re managing that.”

Can Moriah Jefferson cover — or completely fill-in — for Skylar Diggins-Smith?

The next unknown is Skylar Diggins-Smith, who announced she was pregnant in October and remains away from the team on maternity leave.

Diggins-Smith didn’t announce a due date at the time, so there remains some mystery over when she could return to the court, though it won’t happen for a while.

There is also the fact that 2022 was a bit of a rocky road between Diggins-Smith, Nygaard and the team. It will be interesting to see if Diggins-Smith, who has one year remaining on her supermax contract, even wants to play for the Mercury again.

Would the Mercury want Diggins-Smith back? When asked, Nygaard replied, “Sure. We need all available players who want to make the Mercury a great team.”

With Diggins-Smith’s absence in mind, it becomes even more important to see how Moriah Jefferson will fit in with the team. The guard signed with Phoenix in the offseason after 10.4 PPG and a career-high 4.7 APG with Dallas and Minnesota last season.

If it wasn’t clear by the signing, Nygaard and the Mercury feel strongly about Jefferson’s potential fit on the Mercury.

“We very intentionally went after Moriah in this offseason,” Nygaard said. “Really wanted her on our roster. We saw what she was capable of. And we knew she would be dynamic alongside (Griner) and (Diana).”

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Confidence isn’t lacking for Mercury entering season

Despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the season, Phoenix still has high expectations for 2023.

“This is a championship organization,” Nygaard said. “This is one of the winningest franchises in the history of the league so every year, we’re striving for a championship.”

One of the main storylines of the WNBA offseason was the formation of two super teams.

The reigning champion Las Vegas Aces added Candace Parker to go along with All-Stars A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray. The New York Liberty added perhaps the best player in the world, Breanna Stewart, as well as 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and four-time All-Star Courtney Vandersloot. They will team up with 2022 All-Star Sabrina Ionescu.

When asked if she thinks Phoenix is being slept on in favor of super teams, Mercury forward Brianna Turner was quick to include her squad in the super team conversation.

“I’m going to always say Phoenix is a super team,” Turner said. “So, I guess we’re just another super team in the mix.”

The Mercury open the regular season on Friday in Los Angeles and play their first regular season home game on Sunday against Chicago.

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Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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