January 25, 2022 

Inside Vanessa Nygaard’s path to shepherding the Phoenix Mercury

And hear from Jim Pitman about plans to complete the flock

PHOENIX — When Vanessa Nygaard woke up on Monday morning back in Southern California, she still couldn’t believe what was about to happen.

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But as she was on her way to the airport to fly to the state she was born in and become the new head coach of the Phoenix Mercury, her 9-year-old son let her know the stakes of her job better than anyone else could.

“He said, ‘Okay, well good luck. You’re the shepherd.’ And I go, ‘What?’ And he goes, ‘Well, you take care of the GOAT,’” Nygaard recalled with a smile and a laugh. “But I said back to him, ‘No, the GOAT takes care of herself.’

“This opportunity as a coach, how could you … how could anyone pass this up?”

Nygaard did not pass this up, officially getting introduced as the Mercury’s new head coach in a press conference on Monday afternoon in Phoenix. And while Nygaard said it’s a “dream come true” to be a head coach in the WNBA, she’s stepping into a role where there is both room for improvement and sky-high expectations after a run to the WNBA Finals.

Her first professional head coaching gig will be in charge of three Olympic gold medalists in Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi – who was just named the WNBA’s Greatest of All-Time during those Finals. And she’s replacing a coach in Sandy Brondello who was well-liked and respected in the locker room — and thought of highly enough in the WNBA to immediately get a new job as coach of the New York Liberty, meaning Nygaard will have to face her.

It will surely be a challenge — but a challenge is not something she’s afraid of, either.

“Why wouldn’t I want a great challenge? Why wouldn’t I want to coach great players and coach a great team?” Nygaard said. “The fact that they were right at the edge means that they just need to improve on some certain things. I think it’s that daily work, that daily commitment. The WNBA season is very short, so you have to come with that intensity from the very beginning.”

Why the Mercury let go of Brondello

After winning a championship in 2014, Brondello’s first season in charge, the Mercury never again finished in the top-four in the regular season. But Phoenix consistently performed in the playoffs, reaching the semifinals 6-of-8 years under Brondello and the Finals twice.

And this team did just get to the Finals, and were only five minutes away from forcing a winner-takes-the-title Game 5 back in Phoenix. There were hurt feelings aftermath of the collapse, but the general sense at the exit interviews the next day was a desire to run it back with as similar of a core group as possible.

But that sense was shattered when the announcement of letting Brondello go dropped on Dec. 6. Talking to the media for the first time since electing to not renew Sandy Brondello’s contract, Pitman reiterated his message that he felt it was time for a change in leadership.

“We certainly appreciate all of Sandy’s efforts,” Pitman said. “We just thought it was time for a new voice for our team. It’s a long time, eight years is a long time to be with one group of people. We certainly wish Sandy well with her new job. I’m confident that she’ll do very well in New York.”

It’s a curious framing, considering that of the 11 players on the Mercury roster in 2021, only two — Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — were even on the roster in 2018, let alone going back to 2014’s championship-winning season. Of the remaining players currently under contract, Brianna Turner was brought to Phoenix via the draft in 2019 and the other four — Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley, Kia Vaughn and Shey Peddy — came aboard in 2020.

Brondello was well-liked by many in the Mercury locker room and had grown especially close with Diggins-Smith, who credited Brondello with her heightened focus on the defensive end. On the day news about the Mercury parting ways with Brondello dropped, Diggins-Smith sent out a tweet six hours earlier with a single word: Welp.

But even with the popularity of Brondello, Pitman trusted his eyes, ears and instincts, saying he’s “around every day too. I know what goes on in the locker room, I know what’s going on with practice.” After reiterating it was time to find a new voice, he solicited some names from his players, as well as traits players liked and disliked in their coaches – and began the seven-week journey from letting one coach go to bringing in another.

In the press release announcing Nygaard’s hire, Pitman said he spoke to “more than a dozen” coaching candidates and conducted “more than 20” interviews, many of which we know of publicly. Basketball Hall of Famer and current New Orleans Pelicans assistant Teresa Weatherspoon was a finalist for the position, but Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Weatherspoon removed her name from consideration for the role after the Pelicans pushed to keep her.

But no matter how long the process it took, Pitman felt it was vital to take his time to give the Mercury the right leader — both for 2022 and beyond.

“We only get one chance to make this decision and we had to get the right decision,” Pitman said. “I wasn’t going to rush anything just to meet some deadline that was artificial. I wanted to make sure we got the right person.”

Why Nygaard is the right fit for this role

And that person is Nygaard, who stepped away from Windward School in Los Angeles, California — she coached her final games over the weekend — and will immediately hit the ground running with the Mercury. Since becoming the head coach, she twice won state championships, including California’s best-of-the-best Open Division crown in 2018.

Nygaard said she took the Windward job initially because she needed to get “reps as a head coach” and wasn’t finding chances in the collegiate or professional ranks. But after her near-decade at Windward, it was the right time to consider a move.

“I do think I had maxed out what I could do at the high school level and I was ready for a new challenge,” Nygaard said.

She took an assistant job on Bill Laimbeer’s Las Vegas Aces staff for 2021 and said that she felt she was “where I was meant to be” on her first day back in the professional coaching ranks. She had previously been an assistant with the San Antonio Stars (2008) and Washington Mystics (2009) for a year each before going to the high school ranks.

Nygaard spent five seasons playing in the WNBA, bouncing from the Cleveland Rockers (1999) to the Portland Fire (2000, 2001) to the Miami Sol (2002 – where she was teammates with Brondello) and finally to the Los Angeles Sparks (2003). She was a training camp player for the Houston Comets in 2004 but was cut before the season.

This career came after four seasons at Stanford under Tara VanDerveer, save for the one season that current Indiana Fever head coach Marianne Stanley and longtime VanDerveer assistant Amy Tucker were co-head coaches while VanDerveer coached Team USA ahead of the 1996 Olympics. To this day, Nygaard considers VanDerveer a mentor and took a moment to thank and praise her old college coach during the press conference on Monday.

VanDerveer sent this statement when asked by The Next about her former player getting the Mercury gig: “I’m really excited for Vanessa, as the Phoenix Mercury have made a great hire. Players play hard for her because she has a high knowledge of the game and is able to keep it fun while holding everyone accountable. She is an astounding representative of Stanford University and our women’s basketball program. I am very proud of her and confident she will do an outstanding job.”

And, if her year with the Aces is any indication, it seems like she commanded the respect of the players in Las Vegas from the moment she arrived, throughout the season and into the postseason, where they were ultimately vanquished by the Mercury team she’s taking over.

What the Mercury have to do next

Save for a schedule release announcement that was done simultaneously with the league and the other 11 teams, the Mercury have stayed silent throughout this coaching search, even as they were making roster moves. That is almost surely due, in part, to the ongoing investigation into allegations of racism and misogyny in the Mercury and the Suns organization under owner Robert Sarver, brought on by the more than 70 former and current employees spoke to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes for his report.

Arizona Sports radio host and longtime local columnist Dan Bickley has also reported that the investigation will be finished by the NBA’s All-Star break next month, which made it all the more noteworthy that Nygaard thanked Sarver by name in both the written press release and in her press conference. It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room anytime anything happens with the organization right now, even as they carry on with normal business as much as they can.

But now that she’s officially on board as the head coach, Nygaard will immediately begin the process of filling out her coaching staff while getting up-to-speed on the Mercury’s priorities in free agency. Among the aforementioned Mercury roster moves was giving Peddy a reserved qualifying offer for a training camp spot, which she has signed. They also extended a restricted qualifying offer to Kia Nurse … which put them in a tricky cap bind, as Richard Cohen of HerHoopStats called attention to about a week before the team’s moves actually took place.

In order to give Nurse the qualifying offer and still stay cap-compliant, the Mercury waived Megan Walker, who was then subsequently claimed by the Atlanta Dream. It was a bit of a surprise, especially after Pitman spoke so highly of Walker at the exit interviews.

“That was purely a cap decision,” Pitman said. “That was really difficult. We liked Megan, but we only have so many dollars under the cap, and unfortunately, we were in a position where we had to make a roster move.”

At this point, the Mercury have seven players officially under contract for 2022, including three players (Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi) making the supermaximum and Bria Hartley making the maximum. That’s all fine and good to Pitman — even if it makes operating around the cap a massive undertaking, even for a career accountant.

“It is daunting. It goes back to my philosophy that we pay our best players what they’re worth,” Pitman said. “Because of that, you have to fill in the rest of the roster. Sometimes that means you have to play with nine bodies or 10 bodies. But I’m a believer in players getting their value.”

But using the salary database from HerHoopStats, our Em Adler ran the numbers and found that it’s borderline impossible for the Mercury to retain Nurse and be able to sign anyone for more than the minimum salary amount for players with 0-2 years of WNBA service time to get to the required 11 players – and yes, even the nearly $3,000 extra that a second round pick would get over a third round pick would be too much for the Mercury.

Nurse’s recovery from the torn ACL she suffered in the semifinals in October may impact her market, but there’s reason to believe that she may still be desired on a multi-year deal, and she’s highly thought of in Phoenix, too. If she gets any money more than what the qualifying offer is ($73,452), it may force the Mercury to part ways with Vaughn and her non-guaranteed contract of $110,000. While that can’t open up two full roster spots, it would allow for a lot more wiggle room to add in players on either the veteran minimum ($72,141) or by sprinkling in a bit more to players.

Another option, though painful, would be to try and find a suitor for Hartley, who missed most of 2021 recovering from a torn ACL but played the last month and a half for the Mercury and is now playing in Turkey for Fenerbahce. But how desired is Hartley around the WNBA, especially at that cap hit? Would Phoenix be willing to part with a future asset to help facilitate a trade of Hartley? The Mercury don’t have their first round pick in 2022, trading it for Nurse and Walker, so they only have their first round pick in 2023 to use in a trade.

But this is not a team looking to rebuild, and they’ve shown a willingness to part with the future to help the present before. In fact, Pitman is hoping that the talent already on the team may be enough to convince some players to take less than their worth in order to chase the only goal that matters in Phoenix: a championship.

“It’s not just Diana. It’s Diana, it’s Skylar, it’s BG. In my mind, those are three of the top 10 players in the world,” Pitman said. “Having those three, as well as Brianna Turner, it’s a sales point for us, for sure.”

But no matter what free agency entails for the Mercury, they can already say they landed someone who believes in the talent on the roster.

“We have all the pieces that we need to climb up to the very top of the mountain of a WNBA championship,” Nygaard said. “This organization has three, and my goal is to push and push to get four — and more.” 

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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