Story and photos by Devin Millington, June 2018 Issue.
The three-time WNBA Champion Phoenix Mercury will tip off the 22nd season in franchise history May 18 in the Fry’s Food Stores Home Opener at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
The Mercury’s 34-game regular season will be played over 94 days this summer due to the 2018 FIBA World Championships.
After a fifth consecutive trip to the WNBA’s “final four” (eighth appearance in the last nine years) in 2017, WNBA all-time leading scorer Diana Taurasi and 2017 WNBA scoring champion Brittney Griner return to Phoenix this summer with the goal of leading the Mercury to a WNBA-record tying fourth championship in 2018.
Source: Phoenix Mercury.
In 2017, the only returning Mercury players were Taurasi and Griner. Because the organization didn’t want a repeat of last year, they made key moves necessary to bring back a majority of last year’s team. This fact alone is some of the hottest news coming out of the off-season.
Last year’s oldest rookie, Yvonne “Vonn” Turner is coming back after an offseason leading Sopron Basketball (Hungary) with 14.2 points and 4.3 assists per game. Fan favorite and three-point sharp shooter Leilani Mitchell is also returning to the Mercury guard ranks.
Other names returning to the roster this season include Camille Little, Emma Cannon, Stephanie Talbot and Angela Robinson. However, the team has so many returning players that it’s likely they won’t all make the final roster. A highly competitive training camp is a welcome indicator of a strong, competitive 2018 season.
Editor’s Note: This preview was written in advance of training camp and the roster changes made thereafter.
Better With Bonner
After a wide variety of rumors and theories, DeWanna Bonner is returning to the Phoenix Mercury after taking the 2017 season off due to her pregnancy. Bonner missed last season in order to welcome twins, Cali and Demi, into the world with wife Candice Dupree in July 2017.
Last winter, she was back playing in the Czech Republic for USK Praha. Her return to EuroLeague basketball saw Bonner build a solid stat line, averaging over 13 points per game and grabbing an impressive 8.6 rebounds a game. Bonner is known as one of the most versatile players in the WNBA and her return to the Mercury will be pivotal in making a championship run.
One player who won’t be returning, however, is Danielle Robinson. By the conclusion of last season, DRob averaged 6.9 points, 3.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds in in 23.5 minutes per game. In a March trade with the Minnesota Lynx, the Mercury received the 12th-overall pick (first round) in the 2018 WNBA Draft in exchange for DRob and Mercury’s second-round pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft.
In a March press release, Mercury general manager Jim Pitman sent DRob best wishes in Minnesota and said the additional first-round pick is “a very valuable commodity” as the franchise works to build “a championship-caliber roster this year.”
The X-Factor can still catch DRob at least twice this season, as the Mercury host the rival Lynx June 22 and July 21.
The Mercury made four selections in the 2018 WNBA Draft presented by State Farm, which took place April 12. With the team’s first round pick (12th overall), the Mercury selected Oregon State standout center Marie Gülich.
“After averaging under 10 points per game in each of her first three seasons, Gülich increased her all-around production during her senior year, scoring 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 34 games,” according to phoenixmercury.com. “She ranked third in the nation in field goal percentage (65.2 percent) this season and fifth in blocks, paving the way to be named the media’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year…”
Phoenix followed that selection by using its two second round picks on Tyler Scaife from Rutgers University (20th overall) and Raisa Musina (21st overall) from Russia.
“After missing the 2016-17 season due to open heart surgery, Scaife, a 5-foot-9 guard averaged 19.4 points this season as a senior,” according to phoenixmercury.com. “She was named to the 2018 All-Big Ten First Team and was a semifinalist for the Staley Award, given to the best guard in the country. She finished as the second all-time leading scorer in program history after passing Kahleah Copper and Cappie Pondexter on the list this season.”
Musina, a 20-year-old from Moscow, currently plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg alongside Griner and is a member of the Russian National Team, coached by Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello’s husband, Olaf Lange.
“[Musina] has seen much success at the international level, most notably winning a gold medal at the FIBA U19 Women’s World Championships in 2017,” according to phoenixmercury.com. “Musina averaged 16.7, 12.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists in Russia’s seven games, including a 33-point, 11-rebound and seven-assists outing against USA in the championship game.”
Finally, the Mercury made its fourth and final pick taking Imani Wright, who spent her first two seasons at Baylor before transferring to Florida State to play out her final two years of eligibility, with the 26th overall selection (third round).
“Wright averaged 17.1 points and 5.3 rebounds over her four-year college career,” according to phoenixmercury.com. “Wright’s best season came this year as a senior when the 5-foot-9 guard averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 rebounds in 39 games. She was an Ann Meyers-Drysdale Award semifinalist as the top shooting guard in the country, was named an Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press and was an All-ACC First Team selection.”
A January Summer
The Mercury’s next step was obtaining a new point guard and, in exchange for the eighth-overall pick (first round) of the 2018 WNBA Draft, the team filled that role with Arizona State University alum Briann January.
Originally the sixth overall selection in the 2009 WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever, January is a WNBA Champion (2012), a six-time WNBA All-Defensive team member (2012-17), a former All-Star (2014) and has reached the WNBA Finals three times in her nine-year career (2009, 2012, 2015) with Indy.
Instead of playing overseas this past winter, January joined the ASU Women’s Basketball coaching staff as an assistant to head coach (January’s former coach) Charli Turner Thorne. The well-rested guard is bringing defensive tenacity to a Mercury team in need of it.
The Return of the GOAT
Last year, the organization made efforts to rest Taurasi throughout the season in order to maximize her performance and make a strong push in the playoffs. Unfortunately, she missed games against Minnesota and Los Angeles, and the team barely made it into the post season. However, DT has returned after a hard-earned and longer-than-anticipated winter break.
Taurasi has spent her winters in Russia since the 2012-2013 season, but she formally ended her career with UMMC Ekaterinburg in December 2017. UMMC went on to win the EuroLeague Final Four championship in April, which Taurasi watched from home with her wife, Penny Taylor, and their baby, Leo, who was born March 1. Taylor, who retired after 13 seasons in the WNBA, is now the Mercury’s director of player development and performance. Taurasi and Taylor were married on May 14 of last year, which was also the evening before the Mercury’s 2017 home opener.
The perfect combination of rest, wedded bliss and motherhood that just might be the recipe for this MVP-caliber player to lead her team to a fourth championship title.
Grinding Toward Greatness
Speaking of MVPs, it’s no stretch of the imagination to expect Griner to be in the running for the league’s 2018 MVP recognition. She was well on her way to earning this top accolade in 2017 until injuries stopped her dead in her tracks.
Griner has been playing year-round for five years and, while that’s given her a wealth of experience and improvement, that type of schedule takes a toll on players. Still, the biggest gain in Griner’s game has been her recent realization that she’s damn good.
According to Brondello, Griner needed to be talked up, to build her basketball confidence early in her career. No more. Griner is confident and brings a healthy self-esteem that has erased any hesitation that might have held her back in years past. That could be the last piece needed to bring the MVP award to Griner, finally.
The likely starting lineup will be led by Taurasi as the shooting guard with January pushing the ball up and setting up the offense. Bonner and Little will fill the forward slots with Griner in the post. That’s a powerful and versatile lineup, but what about the bench? With Mitchell and Turner, you have perfect complements to Taurasi and January. Cannon gives a strong, intimidating presence underneath, newly acquired Sancho Lyttle brings strong defense play from the bench and Angela Robinson will likely break into the lineup when Griner needs a blow.
All that to say, the 2018 Phoenix Mercury has one of the hottest rosters it’s had in years – maybe even hotter than the 2014 championship team.
For more information on the Phoenix Mercury, or for tickets, visit phoenixmercury.com or call 602-252-WNBA.