Balanced Mercury Wrap First Week of Training Camp

By Brad G. Faye,
Posted: May 22, 2009

Things didn’t come easy for the defending champion Phoenix Mercury in 2008. As if wearing a bull’s-eye on their backs as the 2007 WNBA Champions wasn’t tough enough, the team was never given any time to gel together in training camp.

Playing overseas in Europe, neither Diana Taurasi nor Cappie Pondexter were able to participate in Corey Gaines’ first training camp as head coach. In fact, Pondexter and Gaines didn’t even have the opportunity to meet face-to-face until three hours before the season opener tipped off. The team found another bump in the road during the WNBA’s one-month hiatus for the Olympic Games – a trip to Bejing which saw both Taurasi and Pondexter capture gold with Team USA.

One wouldn’t think a picture perfect season that included a ring ceremony and a gold medal presentation could include many dark clouds, but come season’s end, the 2008 Phoenix Mercury found themselves on the outside of the WNBA Playoffs looking in. For players accustomed to winning like Taurasi, it was a hard pill to swallow.

“It was very disappointing,” Taurasi said of the campaign. “But our strength this season is going to be the ability to apply what we learned last year and not repeat some of the mistakes we made as individuals and as a team. I think we’re much closer already and the hard work we’ve been putting in during this training camp is going to go far.”

This year, Taurasi and the Mercury are back, and this time, the team is getting the season started on the right foot. Gaines – who replaced head coach Paul Westhead in 2008 – is running his first full training camp with a full roster and so far the coach says he likes what he sees.

“It’s going well,” Gaines said. “You need to get all your players on the same page in training camp and having a better opportunity to do that this season is definitely something that helps.

“Most people come into our camp knowing we’re going to run but it’s a different type of running than a lot of players are used to and right now it’s about trying to teach that. I’ll generally apply the things I’ve learned as a player more over the course of the preseason and allow that to carry over into the regular season.”

While the usual suspects, Taurasi, Pondexter and Kelly Mazzante are all in attendance, the Mercury also have some new faces on the roster this year. Rookie DeWanna Bonner brings a 6-1 presence with her to camp that Taurasi likens to a young Kevin Garnett.

“It’s early now so I hate being quoted on this, but I see similarities,” the All-Star guard said of Bonner. “Physically you can see what I see, but she also has a little of that competitiveness that ‘K.G.’ has too. She has the competitiveness of a 12-year veteran which is not something you see out of rookies just coming in. She’s going to have growing pains, that’s just how it works, but if this kid stays as hungry as she’s been, she’s going to be a talented player in this league.”

Adding a player like Bonner, as well as, players like Nicole Ohlde and Muriel Page, the Mercury managed to both toughen up the paint while adding a little depth to their bench. But of course, it just wouldn’t be a Mercury offseason if the team didn’t also acquire some sharpshooters too. Among those standing out in training camp so far is former Mystics guard Laurie Koehn who has been especially impressive.

“She can shoot, definitely one of the best in the league,” Pondexter said. “You watch her and you can see there’s no question why we brought her here.”

Pondexter first took notice of Koehn’s abilities while overseas earning MVP honors in the Turkish Basketball League in 2007.

“We had a 3-Point Shootout and no lie – I’ve never seen this from a male or a female – she made 27-straight three-point shots. This is under pressure, in a contest, 27 straight from outside.”

One has to question how that would be possible considering the standard setup for most competitions involve five racks each containing five balls. Following Mercury practice on Friday, Koehn offered a simple explanation.

“What they do over there is re-rack after your finished,” Koehn explained. “I’ve never seen that in a competition but I kind of enjoyed it because it gives you extra incentive to finish going through everything a little quicker. So after you finished with your 25 shots, you had the opportunity to run to the other end and start all over again until time expires.”

The acquisition of Koehn and the return of Mazzante will help spread the floor and give the Mercury a number of options offensively. And while Ohlde is expected to miss the next three-to-five weeks following foot surgery, assistant coach Bridget Pettis said she likes the inside-outside options the Mercury will have in 2009.

“Both are equally important in terms of helping the other,” Pettis said. “You always hear in this game the importance of getting the ball inside first. It’s obviously a lot easier to do that if you have outside shooters who keep everybody honest. Then, if you’re able to dominate inside and have those sharpshooters like we do on the outside, it’s going to make things that much tougher for opponents.”

With that inside-outside attack finding a balance in training camp, Mercury players and coaches are confident that the team will be back inside the playoff picture come 2009.

“I think we accomplished what we set out to do during the offseason and putting together players that could be successful both inside and outside,” Pettis said. “We’ve always had a backcourt with tons of talent, but now, having dominant inside players who can post up, we like our chances heading into the season.”

“I think from day one we’ve been in the mindset of doing what it takes to have a successful season,” Mazzante said. “We have everyone here this year, we have a lot of talent and now we just want to make sure we go out there and take advantage of that this year.”