How do the Mercury stay in contention while waiting for Diana?
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After the draft, Phoenix Mercury GM Jim Pitman made it clear that the team felt that they were just minutes from a title last season. Signing all of their free agents and luring veterans like Essence Carson had him confident about the team’s chances in 2019, as well. Adding three of the top 13 players in the draft certainly didn’t hurt that optimism. This could be the year for Phoenix to bring a title home for the first time in five years.
Of course, that was before the announcement that Diana Taurasi would miss training camp and up to one-third of the regular season due to back surgery. While they were able to find a way around the loss of Sancho Lyttle last season, this is Taurasi. It’s not a matter of simply plugging in another player and moving on.
“We have a lot of work to do and losing Diana was a big loss for us,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said after the team’s first preseason game. “So, we are just trying to find our identity. We showed at times that we are going to be a great defensive team. We were good last year, but rebounding is an area we need to get better in.”
How will the Mercury find their way until they can get their star back? While Pitman has said that this will be a team that relies on its veterans, the rookies may end up playing a bigger role than expected. They got their first chance to show off the possibilities during Saturday’s preseason game against the Sparks.
In their first 2019 action, the Mercury ran out a starting five of Carson, DeWanna Bonner, Brittney Griner, Briann January, and Leilani Mitchell. That certainly isn’t likely to be their starting line-up when the games get real, even with Taurasi out. Lyttle, most notably, was also absent. It would be surprising if she does not return to the starting line-up when the season starts, moving Carson to a reserve role.
One thing that did stand out in their first taste of action was the play of rookie Sophie Cunningham, the thirteenth pick in last month’s draft. Cunningham was the Mercury’s second-leading scorer with 10 points, trailing only Bonner.
The tough rookie out of Missouri went 4-for-6 from the floor, including 2-for-4 from three, in just under 22 minutes of action. Cunningham’s two rebounds, two assists, and three steals showed the kind of all-around game she was known for in college. Of course, her five personal fouls also showed her tendencies from college.
With Taurasi out, Cunningham will certainly have the opportunity to contribute for the Mercury. If she can maintain her efficiency while limiting the fouls and turnovers (she had three in her first outing), she can help blunt the pain of the loss until the veteran’s return.
The team’s top pick in the draft, Alanna Smith, wasn’t as productive offensively as Cunningham. However, she did show the kind of defense that has Brondello optimistic about the team’s ability to get stops this season.
Smith was the leading shot-blocker in the Pac-12 last season, accounting for 2.2 bpg. On Saturday, going up almost exclusively against league veterans, she blocked three shots and pulled down seven rebounds. She flashed her passing ability to the tune of five assists, which led the team. Even though she shot a disappointing 20 percent for the contest, her strength in every other aspect of the game resulted in the second-highest plus/minus of the seven reserves.
There’s no doubt that Phoenix will rely on its veterans this season. With an aging core, they admit that their window is closing to get this group another title. With a healthy Taurasi, there’s no doubt that they have the ability to get that fourth championship. The challenge is holding on until Taurasi can get back.
After seeing them on the court together for the first time, it appears that the decisions the front office made during the draft and free agent signing period have put them in a good position to meet that challenge. To do so, the veterans will not only have to bring the adroit play that got them to the semifinals last year. They will also have to bring the newcomers along.
“We have some players who have been in the system, know what to expect and how to run things,” Brondello said. “And we got young kids coming in where this is totally different than what they did in college, so it’s a good learning process. They are not going to get everything right, so if I can’t relay the information to them, the veterans are. We have great people here, they are experienced players, and we want to help each and every player get better.”
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