The Notre Dame standout started out of position at center while Brittney Griner served a suspension and helped the Mercury go 2-1 in the stretch.
PHOENIX — Brianna Turner may be a center some day, but looking to the future for that day requires a harsh squint. It also ignores the impact she’s making right now.
Before Kristine Anigwe locked arms with Brittney Griner, before Griner was ever suspended, before the Phoenix Mercury seized hold of their playoff spot with an important 2-1 homestand, Turner was making a difference. To say Griner’s absence was the difference for Turner would be understating Turner’s impact the past several weeks.
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After a victory over the Indiana Fever in late June, a minutes limit for Sancho Lyttle pushed Turner into the lineup and she responded immediately. Rebounding has been an issue for Phoenix most of the season, but in just 3:23 of playing time, Turner gobbled up five boards and showed how her energy could lift this inconsistent older squad.
She pushed back on the idea that anything was different that night, emphasizing that she was always ready. That night, she just happened to get on the court.
Further bad luck for the Mercury saw Turner take the court even more often starting July 20 in Dallas, as Lyttle again hit the injury report with lingering knee soreness from a 2018 ACL tear. In the 10 games since, Turner has averaged 6.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and a block per game in nearly 24 minutes per night.
The advantages Turner brings to the court have been refreshing amidst so many frontcourt injuries as well as Griner’s suspension.
“She’s getting more comfortable in the system really and how we want to play, but she understands what those individual tendencies of those players are and knows that we’re not going to leave her on an island,” coach Sandy Brondello said when Griner’s suspension came down. “She just has to do the best (she can).”
Turner, ever the sacrificing type on the court, may grow tired of hearing about aggressiveness. Brondello points to a recent loss to the Sparks in which Turner grabbed eight offensive rebounds and didn’t put a shot attempt up after any of them. The rookie came up at Notre Dame with an impressive ensemble of star talent around her, culminating in a 2018 title and national championship game appearance in 2019. Dedication to defense, rebounding, running the floor and being a good teammate are her priorities, but Brondello wants more.
Without Griner, the rookie had the chance to show more. While the timing of the suspension worked in Phoenix’s favor as they were home for all three games and hosted two teams outside the playoff race over the weekend, the individual matchups challenged Turner. First it was MVP candidate Jonquel Jones, then Atlanta’s big duo of Jessica Breland and Elizabeth Williams. On Sunday afternoon, Turner faced one of the WNBA’s premier post scorers in Tina Charles, who laid 23 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on the rookie.
Asked after the Mercury pulled out a close win over Charles’ New York Liberty what she learned from the challenges of starting at center, Turner laughed and opened up:
“That I’m excited for BG to come back!”
Turner continued: “Obviously, I knew I had to step in a little more with her being out, but when she’s in the game, she’s just really fun to play with and defense is a little bit easier with her on the court.”
This week will likely stick with Turner going forward and serve as a measuring stick for what awaits her down the line. “I’m excited for all the challenges I’ve faced and I’m excited for more challenges,” she said.
Turner’s role is going to diminish with Griner healthy and Diana Taurasi now cleared to play and serving a one-game suspension Tuesday before likely returning Sunday at home. The rookie could move out of the starting lineup completely.
Veteran DeWanna Bonner, the hero of the 2-1 homestand with a monster 57 points over the two weekend wins, put into perspective the need for sacrifice during this stretch run.
“Everybody knows right now, everybody has to do a little bit more, but when everybody comes back, it balances out,” Bonner said. “You don’t want to try to do too much in the playoffs, because that’s the quickest way to get burned out. The more help the better.”
Diana Taurasi returns
The Mercury announced Monday morning that Diana Taurasi, sidelined with hamstring soreness after returning from back surgery July 16 in Connecticut, has been medically cleared to play. Taurasi will practice with the team all week before her likely return Sunday at home against the Chicago Sky.
Prior to the return, Taurasi will have to serve a one-game suspension as a result of her involvement in the Aug. 11 altercation between Phoenix and Dallas. A creative front office would certainly clear their aging superstar one game ahead of time in order to allow the suspension to wear off before the real return.
Starting guard Leilani Mitchell said Sunday the team did not know Taurasi would be on-court for pregame warmups with them, perhaps another indicator of the long game being played by Taurasi and the organization here.
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