- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
Brianna Turner was succinct. After a 117-80 playoff loss last August that ended a 2022 campaign that was challenging in so many ways, the Phoenix Mercury forward said the season was something she never wanted to go through again.
The fact the Mercury were even in the playoffs was pretty amazing, considering all the hurdles they faced, led by center Brittney Griner’s season-long absence as she was imprisoned in Russia from February-December 2022. Sometimes obstacles bond teams together, and sometimes they just exhaust them. The 2022 season did both for the Mercury, who finished 15-21.
Now, with the page turned for 2023, are the Mercury due for a summer in which they can just focus on basketball? And how good might Phoenix be this season?
“I am just ready to get back on the court,” said Diana Taurasi, who heads into her 19th WNBA season. “It’s a great vibe right now. I think we have a good group of characters that are pushing toward one goal. Whatever that ends up being.”
The Mercury, who went to Game 4 of the WNBA Finals in 2021 before falling to the Chicago Sky, have missed the playoffs just twice in the past 16 years, and not since 2012. So reaching the postseason is a standard for them and helps project what they could do in 2023. Phoenix opened at No. 6 in ESPN’s preseason Power Rankings.
Griner is still building back to being in pro shape, but she’s already made significant progress. Taurasi, second in the league last season in 3-pointers (92), says she still feels the familiar competitive fire. Players who improved last season want to do even more in 2023.
Even in a year when so much emphasis is on “superteams” in Las Vegas and New York, the Mercury still feel they can be in the championship picture.
“We go back to [what it takes] winning a championship: We underplay how important it is to have that team chemistry and respect for each other,” Taurasi said of the atmosphere so far in Phoenix this year. “It’s been really nice, and we’ll see if we can keep it going.”
That’s the hope for coach Vanessa Nygaard, who is in her second season in Phoenix. Nygaard replaced Sandy Brondello, who had been with the Mercury eight years and led them to two WNBA Finals appearances. Nygaard had been a head coach at the high school level and a WNBA assistant, but this was her first pro head-coaching job.
“As a new coach, last year was a very unique training session for me,” Nygaard said. “With many unique situations. But I think coming in [this season] as a staff, much more prepared, much more organized in all the preparation we do for our team. The energy is just great.
“BG’s absence hung over our team all of last year. Her return just brings that great light and breath of fresh air, and new energy, and an ability to focus in a way we weren’t able to do last year.”
The fact Griner was isolated thousands of miles from home with no certainty of when she might return weighed emotionally on the Mercury and the entire WNBA. Yet that was just one aspect of Phoenix’s difficult summer.
There were also high-profile conflicts: Between Taurasi and fellow guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, between Diggins-Smith and Nygaard, between free agent signee Tina Charles and the organization.
Charles and the Mercury parted ways in a contract divorce after 16 games; Charles then joined the Seattle Storm. Diggins-Smith had an excellent season statistically, averaging 19.7 points, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals, yet left the team in the final week of the regular season for personal reasons. Diggins-Smith, who announced in October she was pregnant, has a year left on her contract. But at this point, there is little indication she will play again for the Mercury.
Taurasi, who turned 40 last June, was often much like her old self in 2022, averaging 16.7 points and 3.8 assists in 31 games. But a quad injury caused her to miss the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
And, one last kick in the gut, Mercury guard Shey Peddy suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Phoenix’s first-round playoff opener against the Las Vegas Aces. Which is why what Turner said after the Mercury’s season-ending Game 2 loss to Las Vegas was so understandable. It had been more like an ordeal than a season.
Griner’s release and return in December, plus how quickly she said she wanted to play this year, was the best possible news for the team. Peddy, who made her WNBA debut at age 30 in 2019 and had her best pro season last year, has rehabbed well from her injury and has said she might even be able to play at the start of the season.
In February, guard Moriah Jefferson, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 WNBA draft who has dealt with injuries and trying to find the right spot for herself in the league, signed with the Mercury after a good 2022 season in Minnesota. Also, forward Michaela Onyenwere, the 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year, came to Phoenix in a multiteam trade that sent Diamond DeShields to the Dallas Wings. And guard Sophie Cunningham, who stepped into a bigger role in 2022, re-signed with Phoenix.
There was plenty of activity in the rest of the WNBA this offseason, as the defending champion Aces brought in Candace Parker and the New York Liberty added Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot.
For what it’s worth, in early February 2022, the Mercury looked like a superteam. But from Griner’s detention later that month on, the rest of the year was one difficulty after another for the Mercury. Now, though, they can build on the things that actually did go well in 2022.
Cunningham’s fourth season in the league was her best, as she more than doubled her scoring (12.6) and rebounding (4.4) averages. Turner continued to show she was one of the league’s best defenders, and both were part of the glue that held the Mercury together.
“I want to be one of the top-10 3-point shooters in the league,” said Cunningham, who was 70 of 175 (40%) from long range last season, tying her for eighth in makes and 12th in percentage. “It’s growing, betting better every day. I had to stay ready, and when my number was called I did the best I could. This offseason, I worked on my game a lot. I do believe when you put that work in, the ball doesn’t lie.
“Last season, so many things happened among our team that I think everyone knows about. But it’s a new year, a new energy. I’m happy to be here.”
Center Megan Gustafson, guard Jennie Simms and forward Sam Thomas were Phoenix reserves last season who aspire to do more in 2023.
“One of our emphases this year [is] we’ve added an additional player development coach,” Nygaard said, “so we can develop the end of our bench to be more robust.”
Like most teams, the Mercury hope by the time they settle on their season-opening roster, they will have the right mix of older and younger players. Nygaard said that “it’s an honor” to coach future Hall of Famer Taurasi.
“I felt like there was more in the tank,” Taurasi said of wanting to continue to play past age 40.
And then there’s 32-year-old Griner, who for her nine-season WNBA career has averaged 17.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots. “BG’s just a light of energy,” Nygaard said. “You wouldn’t know all the things that have happened in her past over the last year. She’s come in ready to work, really focused. We’re here to support her. We’re a family. You know how much we missed her last year.”
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