'Ten strong' Phoenix Mercury focus on defense and health

'It does make a difference when you have Diana Taurasi on the floor'

Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via GettyImages)

You’d think with the peculiar nature of training camp in the bubble that teams might be a bit behind in their preparation. That’s not how Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello feels about her team.

“I think we’re a little ahead of where we were last year,” she said.

Why? Well, the answer is pretty simple.

“It does make a difference when you have Diana Taurasi on the floor,” Brondello said.

Last year, the Mercury went into the season already nursing injuries. Now-retired Camille Little and Sancho Lyttle were dealing with injuries. Alanna Smith came in with ankle issues that would eventually end her rookie season. And, as Brondello alluded to, the best player on the team was coming off back surgery that kept her from having a real season.

It was difficult to get started and difficult to keep things going in the right direction. Suspensions were added to the injuries to deprive the team of a lot of minutes from their All-Stars.

Those problems are gone now, but the shortened season will present its own challenges, especially if Phoenix wants to avoid the sudden death rounds of the playoffs.

“Every possession really does matter,” Brondello said.

That doesn’t mean that all of last season's issues are gone, though. At media day in 2019, rebounding was a central topic of conversation for both Brondello and Brittney Griner. As the team prepares to open the season against the Los Angeles Sparks on July 25, rebounding and defense are central concerns once again.

On that front, it’s the new players that the Mercury brought in via free agency who are instilling confidence in the head coach.

“I think we've bought some defensive-minded players in and that certainly helps,” Brondello said. “Kia Vaughn… that's a great strength of hers. I mean, you talk about her and you think about defense and rebounding, and she gives you many other things as well. But Bria Hartley is a really good defender and Shatori (Walker-Kimbrough). They're…a little younger, a little bit more athletic too, and a little stronger. And that certainly helps.”

For Vaughn, success in that area comes down to effort, but she thinks everyone’s job is impacted by having Griner in the paint.

“Brittney is an amazing, amazing player,” Vaughn said. “Obviously, she's tall so a lot of the attention goes towards her which makes it easier for the rest of us. We just have to continue to pursue the ball.”

The opportunity to play alongside Griner and Taurasi will provide all of their teammates a chance to shine.

“Because we were underappreciated in our previous roles, I think we are looking to have a big year, so everybody's excited,” Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “I mean, obviously, it's no secret the players that we have on our team, it's gonna start with Diana and BG. And it's a lot of players, they're gonna feed off of them, trying to make plays, everybody's trying to be aggressive.”

Phoenix will need that aggressiveness, but the team will also need to be smart about load management. With Jessica Breland medically excused from the season, they will have only 10 players to make it through the 22-game campaign and any postseason.

The nature of quarantine and life in the bubble means that getting replacement players will be a lengthy process, so Brondello and her staff will be working to keep the injury bug at bay.

“Everyone’s going to get to play good minutes,” she said.

Now, they just wait as the final few hours tick away before opening tip-off on the first professional basketball in the U.S. since March.

The Mercury on TV

Phoenix will tip-off against the Sparks on ABC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 25. The team will be on TV 18 times this season with two games on ABC, an appearance on ESPN, three games on ESPN2, five on CBS Sports Network, and six on Fox Sports Arizona. The other four contests will be available on WNBA League Pass.