Mercury Working In New Players

By Aaron Seidlitz,

Another season for Corey Gaines – the longest-tenured head coach in Mercury history – and Diana Taurasi – the longest-tenured current member of the team – means more change.

Phoenix welcomed in five new players this offseason, and the acclimation process is about to take place for a team with championship aspirations again this year.

The new players include WNBA veterans Alexis Hornbuckle and Charde Houston – both of whom come from last season’s WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx – along with international veteran Zane Tamane. There are also two rookies that could factor into the rotation this season, between the sixth overall pick of this past draft – Samantha Prahalis – and undrafted free agent Avery Warley.

Not only is it a process for each of the new players to become accustomed to their teammates on the court and a new city off the court, but it is an adjustment for those who have been with the team to form enough cohesion and confidence with the new players so everyone can attack the opposition from the very start of the season.

To that end, Gaines isn’t quite sure what to expect of his team yet.

Considering that he has just gotten back DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree and Taurasi – all three are projected starters – for practice in preparation for the team’s season opener at Minnesota this Sunday, there hasn’t been much of a chance to see what the team will look like as a whole.

Gaines also doesn’t believe a squad shows its true colors until it encounters some sort of adversity.

“You really don’t know about chemistry until you come into a tough situation,” the head coach said. “Preseason camp or a preseason game against the Japanese National Team, that’s not a tough situation. You can’t judge it by that.

“You can only judge it once things really get going, and you encounter a situation that causes you to either come together or grow apart.”

While Gaines wants to see what the team is made of when things aren’t easy, Taurasi is hoping this version of the Mercury learns to play for each other by developing a friendship and a bond.

“You have to put that time and effort into it. I think that’s going to be huge for us,” the five-time All-Star said. “If you like the person you’re playing with, you’re going to go a little bit harder, you’re going to trust that person a little bit more and you’re going to want that person to do well.”

This part of the game may become even more important for Phoenix this season, considering the squad will be without 16 point-per-game scorer Penny Taylor due to injury.

In her absence it could very well be the new players who have to provide a boost to this Mercury team. What follows is a breakdown of each of these new players that could play a pivotal role for Phoenix this season.

Charde Houston 5th Season, Forward, 6-foot, 193 pounds

Even though Houston played in the fewest amount of games over her four-year WNBA career last season in Minnesota, the versatile 6-foot forward found different ways to impact her team.

In a year in which the Lynx won the WNBA Championship, it was Houston who was named the league’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award recipient.

And over her career, she has found a way to impact the game with nearly 10 points and four rebounds per contest. Houston might just be the inside-outside factor the Mercury will be able to utilize in the absence of Taylor.

It doesn’t hurt that Houston couldn’t seem more rejuvenated or feel more invigorated to be in Phoenix, playing in Gaines’ run-and-gun style system.

“I’m just taking everything in. I’m excited about it all, and I’m the type of person who takes nothing for granted anyway,” Houston said. “I’m blessed to be here, you know, I’m happy about it. I play for only one team, this is the team and I’m here.

“So how could I be anything besides excited and happy?”

Alexis Hornbuckle 5th Season, Guard, 5-foot-10, 168 pounds

There is no doubting the basketball pedigree Hornbuckle has on her resume.

She put up impressive numbers at a college where it takes an awful lot to be considered impressive – the University of Tennessee, where she played under the iconic Pat Summit.

After her senior season with the Lady Volunteers, Hornbuckle was drafted by the Detroit Shock and became the first WNBA player to win an NCAA championship and WNBA title in the same season.

Now in her fifth professional season, the guard could be an added defensive boost to the team, considering she is Tennessee’s all-time leader in steals.

Hornbuckle has also been important to her teams when it matter most. In five games during the 2009 playoffs with Detroit, she scored a career-best 10.6 points per game.

As far adjusting to her new team and new teammates, the versatile guard isn’t stressed.

“You come in here and be yourself,” Hornbuckle said. “Every day during training camp and practice, you come in here and play your game. If there’s anything you have to change, you have to do that on the fly. The coaches and the teammates who have already been here, they take note of that.”

Zane Tamane 8th Season, Center, 6-foot-7, 176 pounds

At 6-foot-7, Tamane could become a post presence for this year’s Mercury squad. Despite just one year of WNBA experience since graduating from Western Illinois University in 2006, the center has developed her game overseas.

During this past offseason, Tamane played with Taylor – even witnessed the knee injury that ended the star’s WNBA season before it started – and against Taurasi in Turkey.

In fact, Tamane’s Fenerbahce team is bitter rivals with Taurasi’s Galatasaray squad, and considering both teams are located in Istanbul the numerous matchups taught Tamane a thing or two about her future teammate.

“First of all, it was and really nice to play with Penny. She’s a great teammate and makes everyone better. But I was a part of a great rivalry, between my team and where Diana played, and every game was so tough and the fans were crazy,” Tamane said. “The experience was great, and when you play with the some of the best athletes in the world it helps a lot.”

Samantha Prahalis Rookie, Point Guard, 5-foot-7, 120 pounds

The Mercury coaching staff emphasizes that Prahalis is a work in progress, just like any rookie point guard, but there just might not be too much of a chance to hold her back for long.

The Big Ten Player of the Year last season for Ohio State, Prahalis is a lightning-fast 5-foot-7 guard who scored and distributed at the collegiate level.

In her junior season at OSU, she scored less and passed more. A year later she stepped up her scoring to a career-best 20.1 points per game, and her assists didn’t fall off all that much as she had 24 fewer assists and played in one less game.

Prahalis is happy to be in Phoenix and said that the restaurants and weather have really impressed her, but on the court she is focusing on learning her teammates – an important thing for any point guard who is about to orchestrate the team.

“It’s super important, because when you’re the point guard you have to know everybody,” Prahalis said.

“For me, I have to be comfortable with everyone to tell them where to be on the court. I need to know that they trust me, because as a kid coming straight out of college to have to tell Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree where to be on the court - that could take a second.

“So now, I’m just getting comfortable with that.”

Avery Warley Rookie, Forward, 6-foot-3, 202 pounds

After playing her way onto the team, Warley said she is focused on one area to prove she is ready to contribute at the WNBA level: Rebounding.

Coming from a smaller school, Liberty College in Lynchburg, Virginia, Warley has shown that she can dominate on the boards. During her senior season – in which she ranked in the top 15 nationally for both rebounds and double-doubles – the forward also became the Big South Conference’s single-season leader in rebounding.

That’s a good sign, considering she trumped former WNBA player Katie Feenstra.

At the Mercury’s media day on Wednesday, one day before her birthday, Warley talked about the excitement of meeting her new teammates, being involved in the WNBA and not getting caught up in the process.

She focuses by zeroing in on the paint, becoming as active as she can in terms of rebounding.

“I’m definitely a player that’s developing and I’m trying to find my footing in this league, but I do one thing best and that’s rebounding,” Warley said. “So I’m definitely going to bring that one thing I do best, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.”