May 7, 2022 

Sights, sounds and the sentiments of the Phoenix Mercury on opening night

Brittney Griner's detention in Russia, a new head coach and new players made for an unusual start to the season for the Mercury

PHOENIX — The flashy outfits worn by each member of the Phoenix Mercury garnered oohs and aahs from the crowd just before the tipoff of their 26th season. However, there was a sentimental way to start the season, with the number 42 and the initials BG on the video screen. These represent Mercury center Brittney Griner, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia on drug charges since February. In front of a packed home crowd, Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham addressed fans, known as the X-Factor, about the mission of the three-time WNBA champions. “We hope [Griner] comes back soon, but until then, we’re going to be kicking butt and winning games,” Cunningham said.

Griner’s list of accomplishments go on and on: WNBA champion, seven-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, scoring champion and seven-time blocks leader, just to name a few. But it’s not just her abilities on the basketball court that make her loved and respected, but also her actions off the court. Her annual shoe drive and service to the community is only a glimpse of the positive work that Griner has done in the WNBA.

It’s been a turbulent time for Griner’s teammates, as they have repeatedly been asked for their thoughts on the situation. When training camp began, questions circled about Griner’s status. Considering the relationships formed both on and off the court, the responses were often filled with emotion and compassion.

Five-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith summarized the mantra for the team this season. “It’s emotional to deal with; it’s triggering,” she said. “But we love our sister, we miss our sister, [and] we’re going to continue to play in her honor until she gets back.”

Diggins-Smith definitely played in Griner’s honor Friday night. She was one of the lone bright spots for the Mercury, posting a game-high 25 points on 10-for-18 shooting.

Those feelings echoed throughout the organization, and support roared in from fans, players and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert. The WNBA announced that every home court will display the number 42 and Griner’s initials on the sidelines.

Despite the absence of the Mercury’s beloved player, head coach Vanessa Nygaard said the team managed to gain focus before its opening-night game against the Las Vegas Aces. “This is a group of players who have had a lot of success, who are winners, who are champions, and who want to get back to those levels,” Nygaard said.

Unfortunately, they didn’t find that success on Friday, losing to the Aces 106-88. Vegas shot 58% from the field, 54% from three and over 90% from the free throw line, with three starters scoring 20 points or more.

But championship DNA and experience are present in Phoenix, most notably with Diana Taurasi and Diamond DeShields both winning WNBA championships in their careers. And others are looking to secure a taste of championship gold, including free-agent acquisition and reigning WNBA scoring champion Tina Charles. Charles started her season by dropping 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting and attempting five threes, knocking down one.

Charles, who averaged a league-leading 23.4 points and hauled down 9.6 rebounds per game last season, said that she wants to separate herself from the competition as much as possible. “After extending my range to the 3-point line over the years, how else can I separate myself from my peers who are forwards and centers?” Charles said.

That separation is something that Taurasi has mastered over the course of her career. On Friday, the three-time champion had nine points on 3-for-11 shooting and nine assists in 32 minutes. Entering her 18th season in the league, Taurasi acknowledged that it’s necessary to conserve her energy at times during the season, and Friday’s game seemed to be more of a low day than anything else.

“You have to be a little bit more strategic and look at the schedule and see what days are going to be high days, what days are gonna be low days,” Taurasi said. “There really is no day off.”

Playing 32 minutes can be daunting for an 18-year pro, but the task is necessary with two key players missing in Brianna Turner and DeShields. Both were playing overseas in Italy and were not present for the season opener. After the loss on Friday, Nygaard talked about areas of improvement for the team moving forward. “Important players [DeShields and Turner] are coming in for our next game, so I’m sure it’ll help us,” Nygaard said. “There’s a lot of things to improve with the players, and as a coach, that starts with me. I have to be better. And we’ll continue to improve.”

In Turner and DeShields’ absence, undrafted rookie Sam Thomas has gotten a bigger opportunity. Thomas capped off a phenomenal career at the University of Arizona by finishing in the top 10 in school history in career points, 3-pointers made, 3-point field goal percentage, blocks and steals. She also has championship experience from appearing in the 2021 national championship game against Pac-12 rival Stanford.

The first-year player caught the eye of Taurasi, and that guided Thomas to a productive preseason game in which she posted nine points and hit all three of her 3-pointers. Even though Thomas posted just three points in eight minutes in her WNBA debut, the confidence she received from the vets was impactful. “[Diana] was like, ‘Just run fast, run hard and rebound. All you have to do is the little things,'” Thomas said.

A 2021 WNBA article mentioned that undrafted players have a 6.5% chance of making an active roster. Thomas is a premiere example of the hard work and determination that the Mercury pride themselves on. She, along with veterans such as Diggins-Smith and Charles who have never tasted a WNBA championship, will fuel off of their drive and the support of the X-Factor this season.

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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