Phoenix Mercury trade first-round pick Jocelyn Willoughby for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough

Added shooting for the Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury have already put together a formidable base despite losing DeWanna Bonner to free agency. Adding Skylar Diggins-Smith to veterans like Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner will do that for you. Extending training camp invitations to players like Olivia Epoupa will, too.

“Filling out our roster, we knew we had to get younger and more athletic,” head coach Sandy Brondello said before the draft. “More playmaking, have more shooting. We just needed to get better all around, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the players, whether it’s through the draft or with the training camp contracts we’ve had.”

What Phoenix hasn’t been able to address in free agency is the hole left behind by DeWanna Bonner’s departure. A difference-maker at the three seemed to be highest on the list of needs. The problem was that several teams ahead of them had the same need. That ultimately made their choice for them, according to general manager Jim Pitman.

“When the players that we thought might fall to us were off for the board, the opportunity presented itself to trade and get a player, a young player like Walker-Kimbrough, who can come in,” Pitman said Friday night. “We liked her in the draft four years ago. She shoots the ball really well. Can score off the dribble. Really athletic, someone that we thought would come in and play on our team right away and help us right away.”

When pick No. 10 rolled around, it looked like they were able to snag both scoring and rebounding with Virginia guard Jocelyn Willoughby. The ACC’s leading scorer was in the top eight percent in scoring efficiency and the top five percent in rebounding according to Her Hoop Stats. She was good for 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season.

As time wore on and the team didn’t announce the pick, it looked like something was up. Indeed, it was. Willoughby was sent to the New York Liberty for guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

Walker-Kimbrough spent last year with the WNBA champion Washington Mystics before being sent to the Liberty just days ago in the Tina Charles deal. The fourth-year player played 17.1 minutes per game in 34 appearances last season. She made one start and put up a career-high 6.7 PPG to go along with 1.6 RPG and 1.2 APG.

The Mercury followed that up with another big guard, going with the well-traveled Te’a Cooper of Baylor at No. 18. Cooper ended her college career in Waco after spending time first with the Tennessee Lady Vols and then with the South Carolina Gamecocks.

In her final year on campus, Cooper was good for 13.6 points and 4.6 assists per game. It landed her on the All-Big-12 team and garnered honorable mention All-America designations from the Associated Press, US Basketball Writers Association and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

“Te’a was someone we were considering grabbing at 10,” Pitman said. “And for her to fall to 18 for us was a real bonus. We really like her size. Already a WNBA body coming out of college. Extremely quick. Fast with the ball. Has really improved her 3-point shooting.”

Brondello wasn’t kidding when she said the team was looking for scoring. They wrapped up their draft by taking the nation’s leading scorer, Stella Johnson of Rider, at No. 29. Yet another big guard, Johnson contributed 24.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game this year. All three stats were among the top five percent in Division I.

“At 29, Stella Johnson was someone we were actually looking at at 18,” Pitman said. “If Cooper hadn’t been there, that may have been the one that we picked.”

They didn’t address the small forward position on draft night, but Pitman was not concerned.

“(Walker-Kimbrough) is a two,” he said. “Now, Diana (Taurasi) can play the three, but Kimbrough is a two as far as who she guards and how she plays.”

In the end, the Phoenix GM felt that the haul the team made at last year’s draft would carry the team forward not only because of their skill on the court but because they offered the team salary cap flexibility to make some big moves during free agency.

“Last year, we were [15-19],” Pitman said. “That’s not very good, certainly not good for the Phoenix Mercury.”

Did the off-season and draft night moves put them in a position to be better than that? When the basketball world returns to the court, the Mercury will have something to prove.

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