How the Phoenix Mercury will play after offseason trade for Skylar Diggins-Smith

A new "Big Three" in Phoenix came with a major roster overhaul that left the Mercury younger and more versatile

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Phoenix, ARIZONA/USA - July 05, 2018: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) during a Sun vs Mercury WNBA basketball game at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Unlike many WNBA teams, the Phoenix Mercury were fortunate enough to get to the IMG Academy clean site with their “big three” in tow, but the work of putting the team together is far from over for head coach Sandy Brondello and her green coaching staff. It will likely last beyond the abbreviated training camp the Mercury have put together in Florida the past week. 

“Us three in action is going to be hard to guard,” center Brittney Griner said at team media day on Tuesday. “I don’t know what I would do, honestly. … You can’t take away all three of us.”

Yet Griner also said this initial period of workouts has been perhaps equally important building chemistry in the bus rides to and from the gym or the daily testing sessions. The small parts of the season that get overlooked have been energizing so far. 

The typically content Griner is able to find the green in the Bradenton grass, though even she couldn’t do much but shrug when asked about the adversity this season presents. New teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith, the last puzzle piece of the Mercury big three alongside Griner and the legendary Diana Taurasi, admitted on Sunday that she was “conflicted” about even being at IMG. Taurasi had to leave her wife, Mercury assistant coach Penny Taylor, and their son Leo, behind in Phoenix to play her 16th season.

So, yes, all will agree it’s not the best time to be acclimating as an exciting new WNBA big three, nor the situation that was expected when the Mercury acquired Diggins-Smith in the winter. But between Team USA competition and playing against one another in the WNBA, the familiarity is there, and all three are experienced basketball players whose priority is winning. Training camp will be about ironing out as many kinks as possible.

“I don’t think you can avoid that,” said Diggins-Smith. “Sometimes, Dee will zag and I’m gonna zag. … It’s not hard playing with great players, sometimes it’s just hard to get out of each other’s way.”

Aggressiveness has been the buzzword so far in camp for Phoenix. Diggins-Smith said she wants any turnovers to come as a result of pressing too hard offensively, a luxury affordable for a Mercury team filled with smart play-makers.

The Notre Dame product is not the only major addition to the Mercury roster this season. As the Mercury filled out the team around the big three, they emphasized backcourt versatility. No longer is Taurasi an offense unto herself as she was in her prime -- at least not in the regular season. And with both she and Diggins-Smith coming off lost 2019 seasons, depth will be important. “We thought, you can never have too many play-makers or shooters,” said Brondello, so Phoenix targeted veteran guards who are multi-skilled, such as Bria Hartley and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

“People always ask me if I’m a point guard or a shooting guard, and I always say I’m literally the perfect combo guard,” Hartley said. “I do really well when I don’t have to do one of them all the time, if I’m able to interchange between the two. I think we have the personnel to where whoever gets it can bring it up (the floor) and run the offense, and I can get out and run the floor or vice versa.”

How Hartley adapts to a new situation outside New York will be key for where the Mercury go this season. Yet other roadblocks have already gotten in the way for Phoenix.

Losing Jessica Breland, who was medically cleared to miss the season as a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will hurt the team on the floor. But Phoenix is well-suited to fill in the frontcourt around Griner. They quietly acquired Kia Vaughn, a veteran center who will back up Griner capably and, Brondello said, occasionally play the 4 alongside the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Griner.

Phoenix also boasts two promising second-year players, including a healthy Alanna Smith, who missed most of 2019, and the rapidly improving Notre Dame alum Brianna Turner, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie before finishing second in MVP voting in the Australian league this winter.

All three will aim to limit the workload for Griner while giving the Mercury a more athletic frontcourt than they’ve had since Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner played together in purple. Brondello said “every player is important, more so than any other season because everyone’s going to get to play,” before calling Turner a “gazelle” whom she will ask a lot out of early on. Brondello also said Smith, who is quite mobile at 6’4 and can shoot well, could see time at the 3 as well, alongside new addition Nia Coffey and the beloved Missouri alum Sophie Cunningham, who recently arrived in Florida after recovering from COVID-19.

In particular, Smith could acclimate quickly, as she knows the Mercury system thanks to time with Australian Opals national team, which Brondello also runs. Turner was the one, though, who sopped up minutes when Griner and Sancho Lyttle were out in 2019. The fit between she and Griner in the post is among the biggest questions facing Phoenix, as neither player is a particularly adept shooter. Don’t be surprised to see Brondello go with three guards for long stretches of games, either, with Coffey and Cunningham inconsistent from deep as well.

With heightened individual expectations, this year will be quite different for rookies Smith, Turner and Cunningham, who are now key fixtures in the rotation. The Mercury in 2019 loaded up with veterans, aiming to go all in for a title. The plan backfired when Taurasi, Sancho Lyttle and Essence Carson all missed extended stretches due to injury. This season, they’ve retrofitted the roster with youth and positional versatility. In many ways, it makes far more sense for a team built around Taurasi and Griner. It also gives them flexibility for the future.

While no one is mistaking versatility for instant chemistry, Phoenix is optimistic. And in a season when merely having great players active is an advantage, the Mercury are a step ahead. When the goal is a fourth championship, the season is about the slow build.

“We don’t want to be at the peak right now,” Diggins-Smith said. “We want to still be building our way up. We’re feeling good about where we are right now.”