Russ Pennell's Training Camp

By Ben York,
Posted: August 27, 2013

Russ Pennell was named Interim Head Coach of the Phoenix Mercury 18 days ago.

Since that time, the Mercury has played six games in three different cities – four at home and two on the road – winning four and losing two. Pennell’s 4-2 record has tied Cheryl Miller for the best start by a new head coach in franchise history.

Perhaps more significant, before the start of its current mini training camp (August 26-30), Phoenix was able to have a real practice just five times in the first 14 days of Pennell’s tenure.


Indulge me for a moment, and put yourself in Russ Pennell’s shoes.

You’re named Interim Head Coach on Thursday, August 8. Your team has two huge games at home against the Tulsa Shock in the next 72 hours before hosting the defending WNBA Champion Indiana Fever in less than a week. Due to time constraints, you’re only afforded one, albeit short practice – which ends up being more of a run through – before your team has to play in an actual game.

What do you do?

The short answer is: the best you can.

Pennell made a conscious, deliberate choice not to further complicate the situation. From the get-go, he instilled higher standards throughout the team in terms of defense and rebounding while relying on assistant coach Julie Hairgrove to oversee the Mercury’s offense.

To date, the Mercury defense has allowed 78.9 points per game under Pennell while forcing opponents into just 38 percent shooting.

Still, understandably so with limited practice time, the Mercury hasn’t put together a complete game on both ends of the floor – at least, to their own expectations. That’s why this week – Pennell’s training camp – is so vitally important.

In a very real way, it introduces the tone for the rest of the season. Rather, for the first time, Pennell can truly focus on the details and intricacies he normally would during a true training camp.

“It’s big for us,” Pennell said about this week of practice. “It’s the first time we can really focus on attention to detail and make sure everyone is accountable. We haven’t really had the practice time to implement everything I normally would. The ladies have been great in that they’ve been open-minded and flexible during this period. Now, we’ll be able to fine-tune a lot of things.

“It starts with better overall effort and I think we’ve accomplished that so far.”

In fact, Monday’s practice felt like the first day of training camp – physical, gritty, lengthy and intense. If there was a breakdown in defensive assignments, they’d examine it, correct it and do it again. On the offensive side of the floor, taking care of the ball while subsequently getting a good shot was the priority.

If someone made a great play, they’d get recognized and complimented. Conversely, if there was a mistake, Pennell would certainly let them know in a stern, constructive manner.

“I think it will really help us as we come together for the rest of the season,” said Diana Taurasi. “The energy level from everyone is up, and I think we’ve started to rediscover our identity. If we want to get to where we all feel that we can, we don’t have any other choice.

“It’s the little things that will make the most difference.”

That statement echoes and reinforces what Pennell has been saying all week.

The Mercury hopes that by putting in the hard, extra work now will, ultimately, pay off down the final stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs. With their next two games both at home coming in a span of 12 days (August 31 vs. Connecticut and September 6 vs. San Antonio), this is unquestionably the ideal time to work on the little things and enhance what they are already doing well.

Better said, the Mercury’s collective mentality is that “close enough” rarely is.

“Keep doing the little things better,” Pennell said, when asked what his theme has been for practice. “That’s what our focus is. I really think this team has the talent to go far, but we absolutely have to get better in the details. Taking care of the ball, taking better shots – things like that. Like I said after the Seattle [Storm] game, it’s the little things that have been keeping us from being great.

“I’m very much encouraged with how each player has responded in practice so far. That’s a really good sign as we move forward.”