With two of the top 13 picks in Wednesday’s 2019 WNBA Draft, the Phoenix Mercury were in an advantageous position, but opportunity can often bring sacrifice.
Not so for Phoenix in this draft. The Mercury instead went all in, not only taking WNBA-ready players with No. 8 and No. 13 but also trading for another top player to further stack their roster heading into a season in which they are expected to again compete for the WNBA title.
Walking away from draft night with Alanna Smith, Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner has to satisfy the Mercury after an offseason of relative stability. The past two seasons, Phoenix has had to rely on inexperienced and occasionally ill-fitting talent like Danielle Robinson or Camille Little around their Big Three. By finding youngsters who fit with Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix built its depth for this season and started to plan for the future.
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“Our goal when we got to the draft was to get younger, more athletic, we clearly accomplished that,” said Mercury general manager Jim Pitman in a post-draft conference call. “We wanted to add basketball players, though, and we think we did that with the three players we got in the first 13 picks.”
The players also fit a theme as a group outside of what they represent to the Mercury. They each possess skills Pitman and coach Sandy Brondello repeated several times during the short call Wednesday night: athleticism, the ability to play in transition, and the ability to knock down open shots from the outside.
According to Synergy, both Cunningham and Smith were in the 90th percentile or above on catch-and-shoot spot-up jumpers. Each made 40 of their 3s this season on elite volume. And perhaps most importantly when it comes to Phoenix’s lineup construction in last year’s semifinal playoff run, each brings size to the Mercury roster.
At 6’1 and 6’4, respectively, the rookies will allow Brondello to mix and match five-player combinations more easily than at any point in recent memory. In the past, the 5’10 Yvonne Turner and 6-‘ Stephanie Talbot were Brondello’s best options at forward. All of the players Phoenix drafted will change this identity to the sort of long, versatile group the front office wants.
“You never know how the draft is gonna go,” Brondello said. “We got really good players that are going to help us for a really long time, so it’s not players that we’re picking them just to fill the spots, we know they can play in the WNBA for a really long time.”
While Cunningham and Smith bring elite shooting and positional maneuverability, Turner is just as interesting for Phoenix. The 2018 national champion brings tough interior defense and energy in the frontcourt the Mercury haven’t had in a young player since perhaps Brittney Griner was drafted all the way back in 2013.
Turner brings the same hard-nosed play and efficiency as her rookie counterparts when it comes to transition play, which Pitman and Brondello both highlighted in each of their top picks. She shot 69 percent on shots in transition as a senior at Notre Dame and finished in the 93rd percentile as a transition scorer, per Synergy.
The star talent atop Phoenix’s roster has rarely afforded the team the ability to upgrade in any major way. But with an aging roster (Taurasi is 36, Bonner 31, Griner 28), Pitman saw the chance to secure future pieces and acted.
“We’re not a young team, we’re an older team, and we’re definitely trying to win now,” Pitman said. “We also have to start thinking about the future and we think we’ve really solidified the start of that tonight.”
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