February 16, 2022 

Finally in Phoenix, Tina Charles is ready for a title — and more

After nearly joining the Mercury in 2020, Tina Charles is heading to Phoenix at last

PHOENIX — The move that shocked everyone in and around the WNBA in 2022 — Tina Charles to Phoenix — almost happened in 2020.

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A free agent at the time after a long stint with the New York Liberty, Charles seriously considered joining the Phoenix Mercury, and our own Howard Megdal reported that the Mercury and Liberty were in “advanced talks” to send Charles to the desert. Charles said it was “extremely close,” but eventually she didn’t come — even after a phone call from Diana Taurasi.

“When I got off the phone with Diana, I looked at my mom and I was like, ’Mom, I basically just said no to Kobe Bryant,’” Charles recalled on Thursday. “I don’t even know if the opportunity will present itself again.”

That opportunity did present itself again — and, two years later, it’s finally happening: Tina Charles is now in purple and orange and the Mercury have four — yes, four — Olympic gold medalists they can start as they go all-out for the franchise’s fourth WNBA championship.

For Charles, ever since that near-miss of joining the Mercury — but especially as the Mercury went to the WNBA Finals — Charles watched from afar and wondered what it would have been like had she gone to Phoenix then.

She has no regrets about the decision she did make to join the Washington Mystics, via a sign-and-trade with the New York Liberty, and she told The Next she would make that same decision even though it didn’t work out as intended.

But the excitement over the new opportunity is palpable for the three-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning WNBA scoring champion, who averaged 23.4 points per game in Washington in 2021. There’s nothing else Charles has to show to be considered an all-time great — even to herself — but she still feels she has a lot left to achieve. And a lot of room to grow her game still.

“I definitely don’t feel I have anything to prove, there just are things that I’d like to accomplish, and that’s being a great teammate, seeing how far my game can go,” Charles said. “When you have a roster that’s as full as this roster, you sacrifice the ‘me’ for the ‘we.’ That’s something that I always remember as being a part of USA Basketball and that’s how I’m going to approach this team.

“You get to find ways, different ways, to impact the team. Not in the same scoring capacity that I would always. Maybe it’s making the extra pass, being a great high-low passer for BG. It’s all those little things and little details of the game that’s going to help our process to be able to win and be on a championship run.”

And a not-so-insignificant part of that is Charles recently ramping up her outside shooting ability. After attempting just 17 3-points in her first six WNBA seasons (making two), Charles has steadily grown her 3-point shooting in both volume and quantity, taking and making the most 3-pointers in 2021 (50-for-137) and doing so at a career-best 36.5% rate. Charles credited the work she did when medically exempt from the 2020 season for it in how she’s been able to continue to grow.

“To be honest, I got bored with my game when I sat out from the bubble — you know, hook shots and drop steps,” Charles said. “I challenged myself and I thought there was another level that I can get to, there’s more that I can do. … I just stayed in the gym, I just worked on my game and I just wanted to stretch the floor.

“When I’m playing against the young talent, I always think about, ‘What is Jonquel Jones doing? What is Breanna Stewart doing? What is Candace Parker doing?’ I always look at my counterparts and I either try to match what they’re doing or try to go above and beyond what they’re doing. For me to be able to knock down the three, I knew it would help elongate my career. And it was also very fun to do.”

If you were doubting how committed Charles was to winning, her salary this season should further make that point hit home. Charles signed for $108,000, according to Rachel Galligan of Winsidr/JustWomen’sSports, which is the most amount of money she could take while allowing the Mercury to still carry the veteran’s minimum salary amounts for their yet-unfilled 10th and 11th roster spots, should they wish to fill those spots with players with WNBA experience. If the Mercury do that, they’d end up being just $290 under the minimum – just enough.

(Though that doesn’t mean the Mercury will sign players who are veterans, either. They recently signed two players to training camp deals: Jennie Simms, a 6′ wing who has one season of WNBA experience (2017 in Washington and Indiana); and Neah Odom, a 6’2 wing who was with the New York Liberty in 2020 and 2021 but was released to create cap space. There will be more in the two months before training camp begins, and almost any player brought in from now until then will know they’re fighting for one of those final two roster spots — no matter what they’ve done before. While they’ll be risking depth issues by only operating with 10 healthy bodies as Kia Nurse recovers from her torn ACL, hardship exemptions don’t count against the cap, so they can make sure they have 10. And you’d think players not on a WNBA roster would surely be interested in joining a title-contending team like Phoenix … right?)

Because of the willingness to sacrifice personal accolades and statistics to do so and the forfeiture of salary amount she could command if she wanted to, many have assumed Charles could be willing to end her career if she gets the championship she so desperately wants. But when asked by The Next about that, she pushed back against that as a possibility.

“I like to think I still have several years. I still have the same work ethic as I did when I came in to the league, I still have the same passion for the game,” Charles said. “As long as I can keep competing, as long as I still get double- and triple-teamed, I’m still going to feel like I’m still impacting this game and still respected. I don’t think it’s like, ‘Hey, we won this year and that’s it for me.’ I think I’m still going to want to play, still going to want to compete and see how many more you can get, if it happens.”

It’s what’s causing the elated anticipation to permeate all through everyone around Phoenix right now. Just look at the quotes in recent press conferences:

Kia Nurse, who Richard Cohen of HerHoopStats reported signed her qualifying offer for a one-year deal: “I’m super excited about all of the news we have coming in. Obviously, we’ve got a really solid base and core, that leadership core. I think when you’re allowing yourself to bring in [a] new coach and new players that are as talented as we’ve been able to bring in, I think it’s always really exciting.”

Diamond DeShields, who signed a two-year deal: “Everyone’s pretty excited, and I’m just equally as excited and ready to get to work.”

Mercury general manager Jim Pitman: “In this case, it’s all about winning, and I couldn’t be happier to have this young woman next to me, coming to Phoenix and playing for the Phoenix Mercury.”

It’s also a heck of a start to the job for new head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who was in attendance for Charles’ introductory press conference and spoke exclusively to The Next and The Arizona Republic after Charles and Pitman’s press conference. While some may consider stepping in as a first-time professional head coach … to a team that just made the WNBA Finals but lost … and added a fourth Olympic gold medalist to the three already on the roster … to be daunting, that is just not how Nygaard’s brain works.

“I don’t think that’s a productive way to think. It’s an opportunity, right?” Nygaard said. “This is a great group of players, we have an opportunity to do something. It will depend on the work we put in. But the potential is tremendous. It’s just exciting. Why waste my energy thinking, ‘Oh, this is a lot.’ That’s not worth my time.”

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What has been worth Nygaard’s time is consuming as much film as possible to better understand how to get the rotations right. Pitman acknowledged a huge benefit of this move is being able to lessen the load of Griner, Charles and two-time First-Team All-Defense team forward Brianna Turner, but it’ll be up to Nygaard to manage that.

Nygaard did just come from being an assistant with the Las Vegas Aces, where she watched former head coach Bill Laimbeer manage a frontcourt trio that were all starting-quality, in A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage and Dearica Hamby, with Hamby coming off the bench. And while it won’t be exactly like Vegas because, according to Nygaard, “they’re all so unique in their different skillsets,” she’s confident in the team’s ability to figure it out. And she’s been watching a tournament from the past to see part of it play out.

“I did watch all of the Rio Olympics again, that was the first thing I did when it became possible that we could get Tina,” Nygaard said, when Team USA had Taurasi, Charles and Griner all in the starting lineup for all six games. “Watching that and seeing how they played really well together, how they were balanced and how the floor was spaced, I thought that was really informative. It was a couple of years ago and it was early in BG’s career, and her game has grown so much and Tina’s game has grown so much.

“Maybe it was just me wanting to rewatch the Rio Olympics, it was a great Olympics. It’s just exciting. Tina’s just an inspirational person to be around. To hear her talk, to hear her commitment to being selfless and helping others, those things are important to me as a person. I’m excited to be around her and I’m excited to learn from her. Players have tremendous knowledge of the game.”

The recent excitement over the acquisitions for the Mercury are just adding layers of intrigue inside the Footprint Center nowadays. All three sports teams who call it home — the Mercury, the NBA’s Suns and the Indoor Football League’s Arizona Rattlers — made it to their respective league championships in 2021, but lost once there. The Suns have followed that up with an NBA-leading 46-10 regular season (as of Monday, Feb. 14) and will have their head coach, Monty Williams, running a team at the NBA’s All-Star Game.

But the ongoing investigation into allegations of racism and misogyny in the 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, is still hanging in the air. Longtime local columnist and current Arizona Sports radio host Dan Bickley reported that the investigation “will be finished by the All-Star break in late February” — which is this upcoming weekend.

Life has continued to roll on even with the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the organization and the results of the investigation, especially after the organization publicly attacked the report’s credibility weeks before it was even published by Holmes and ESPN. In the time since, the Suns have extended their general manager James Jones, the Mercury have let go of Sandy Brondello as their head coach and gone through the process to hire Nygaard, which took them into the free agency discussion window.

All of that led to the moment Charles signed, the culmination of a series of moves to clear cap space for DeShields and Charles to join in with the core already in place here. When asked by The Next if the investigation is something she was considering as she looked to sign with the Mercury, though, Charles said it didn’t.

“I’m a big fan of Monty Williams and just his approach with his players. I’m a big fan of Chris Paul and what he was able to do when he was with the LA Clippers and when that whole scandal happened back then. And even Skylar Diggins[-Smith] with her voice when it comes to being an activist,” Charles said. “You have players here who will definitely continue to make sure that the organization is going be run the right way.

“When it came down to that, did it cross my mind? No, honestly, it didn’t. I know there are players here who are going to hold individuals accountable to make sure that this organization is reflected in the way that it should be.”

There’s the investigation into ownership, the NBA Suns continuing on their path toward the NBA’s best record and now the Mercury loading up for another title run — and with only Diggins-Smith and DeShields under contract beyond 2022, plus it potentially being Taurasi’s final season. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking there’s an element of “It’s now or never” into these actions for the Mercury.

But for their new head coach, that mindset has been happening for a while — and will only feel like it will continue to carry on beyond now, too.

“This is the Phoenix Mercury. We’re going for it every year. We’re not taking off-years in going for it,” Nygaard said. “The urgency of the feel of being in the Finals and not winning, plus these new players who also want to get to that level and want to be there again. I think this is what you want: a very competitive environment where people are focused on one thing, which is winning.”

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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