As Team Works Hard, New Stars Emerge

By Ben York,

While the loss of Penny Taylor for the year and Diana Taurasi for the foreseeable future can never be considered “good” in any universe that I’m aware of, their collective absence has allowed for new stars to emerge on the Phoenix Mercury.

But just because the “star” job opening is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean the position will be filled immediately (if at all). However, fortunately for the Mercury, several players have already made phenomenal sales pitches.

Over the course of three games last week, DeWanna Bonner averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds in her new full-time starter role and was named Western Conference Player of the Week. Rookie Sammy Prahalis has been absolutely brilliant of late averaging 13 points and 7 assists in her last three games, including a 19-point performance against Tulsa (the most by a Phoenix rookie since Bonner in 2009). Charde Houston has quadrupled her scoring average from last year (2.9 to 11.5 in 2012), while playing a career-high 26.0 minutes per game. And then, of course, there’s the ever-consistent Candice Dupree who is averaging a career-high 19.0 points per game while shooting an incredible 56 percent from the floor.

The transition from playing without Penny and Diana, to with Diana, and then without Diana again has certainly been taxing for the entire team. Penny and Diana are such dynamic, extraordinary players that the Mercury’s system and structure changes dramatically without either one of them on the floor – it affects, literally, everything. Not only does the Mercury have to operate minus the scoring output from the two, it changes how they attack and where they exploit opposing defenses.

Still, in spite of all the ups and downs, I’ve never once seen a single Mercury player complain or have a “woe is me” attitude. Better said, it’s amazing to see (first-hand) how driven the entire organization is to making it all work.

For example, the Mercury’s style of play remains the same but the method(s) at which they operate have had to be modified (to say the least) without Taurasi and Taylor. Now, there is a need to be more deliberate with where they attack. Additionally, it’s now imperative for six to seven players to chip in offensively every single night (not counting Taurasi, four Mercury players currently average double-figures in scoring). From a defensive standpoint, the team-first mentality is also evident; they absolutely have to communicate and work together if they want to get stops and rebounds (as we saw against the Shock last Sunday).

In terms of “learning” how to play with one another, it’s infinitely easier said than done. Players have had to step into brand new roles (Gray-Lawson to point guard, Bonner to a starter, more playing time for Warley, Houston’s offensive leadership, etc.) and there hasn’t been much time for an adjustment period.

They truly are learning on the fly and putting in the extra hours to become more comfortable (mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights, etc.).

To be blunt, the team is working their tail off.

Many people like to reference speed and tempo as staples of the Mercury’s offense. And while they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, I’m of the belief that the team plays best when they are “free” and let the game come to them (less thinking, more doing). This comes from getting a feel for one another and developing chemistry and cohesion. The tough part is that it’s different than simply learning a play or set; it just…happens.

The good news? If you look at how the team played against Tulsa in comparison to their first couple of games, there is little denying that they’ve shown remarkable improvements with each game (remember – it’s only six (!) games into the season!) both offensively and defensively.

This is still an immensely fun team to watch, and their unwavering dedication to making this a successful season has my utmost respect and adoration.