BLOG: Training Camp 2013

PhoenixMercury.com's Ben York gives the X-Factor a behind-the-scenes look at Phoenix Mercury Training Camp 2013. Visit this page daily for exclusive interviews, videos, analysis and pictures. You can also follow both the Phoenix Mercury on Twitter (@PhoenixMercury) and York (@bjyork) for real-time coverage.


Posted by Ben York: May 9, 2013

"Day 4: The Little Things"



It’s easy for coaches to use the justification of “it’s still early.”

But now that the players truly understand what is expected of them at a Phoenix Mercury practice, Corey Gaines uses that mantra less frequently, if at all.

“Now it’s time to get faster, quicker,” Corey Gaines said after practice Thursday. “We don’t have enough time to fall back and say ‘we’re learning’ still. They’re doing well, though. If there is any letdown, they pick it up real quick. We’ll get Diana [Taurasi], Penny [Taylor], DeWanna [Bonner] and Candice [Dupree] soon and I don’t think we’ll miss a beat when they get here.”

John Wooden used to often say, “Be quick but don’t hurry.” In the case of the Phoenix Mercury, that couldn’t be more accurate. Gaines uses a systematic approach to his practices; he’ll start going through a drill or set slowly, and then gradually ask the players to go faster – all while maintaining purpose and control.

“I want them to go fast,” Gaines said. “But I also want them to do it right. We are the ones who need to set the pace of the game. The more we do that in practice, the more likely we’ll do it in games.”

But it’s more than just going faster; it involves mastering the concept first, then continuing to elevate one’s own level of perceived mastery by moving faster on both sides of the ball.

Here’s an example of a simple, effective drill that Gaines and his staff use regularly. (Some may know this as a “Triangle Shell Drill.”) Don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away here. This is a common drill in basketball that is used universally by coaches at every level.

Gaines has a player at the top of the key and two players on either wing, free-throw line extended. The offensive players swing the ball side to side and/or reverse the ball. Essentially, the purpose of the drill is to teach the defense how to properly adjust.

Offensively, Gaines wants the team to take the easiest and highest-percentage shot possible. With the weapons the Mercury has, there are limitless possibilities of what that shot could look like. However, on the defensive end of the floor, Gaines obviously wants the opposing team to take the most difficult shot possible.

Each player in the defensive triangle should be in a position to either stop the ball from getting to the basket or close out on a shooter if the ball is reversed or kicked out. To be classified as a good defending team, players understand that all five people on the court need to talk and be on the same page.

Gaines incessantly reminds the team to talk; if they don’t, they run.

If a player on the wing penetrates the lane, it’s the entire team’s job to first stop the ball but also to help out on the weak side of the floor by rotating. Ideally, Gaines wants the defense in position so that when a player drives to the basket, there will rarely be a situation where a defender isn't there to help out.

Rather, the defense might not always stop the driving player, but it should (at the very least) be able to slow her down where help is no longer needed.

Thus, in this drill, a shell offense is set up on the perimeter with players on the wing penetrating the lane at various times. The goal is to have the defense stop the ball and force the player to pass it back outside.

The key, though, is that players have to communicate and run hard to ball when it is kicked out to the perimeter. If not, the offense has a wide open shot. Conversely, if the entire team doesn’t communicate, the defense breaks down instantaneously leaving easy shots for the opposing team.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the easier the shot the opponent gets, the more likely they’ll score. Likewise, the more the other team scores, the fewer opportunities the Mercury has to score. This negatively affects the Mercury in multiple ways, especially in their transition game.

As a rule, the Mercury wants their opponents to take as many low-percentage shots as possible during a game. Why? So they can rebound the ball and run. The Mercury doesn’t have to be a total lock-down team on defense, but they do need to improve.

Indeed, it’s a cyclical process.

This is just one of the many drills the Mercury runs and it usually lasts about 20-25 minutes. Certainly, there are far more intricate concepts involved with the drill, but at least you get the general idea.

If the entire team isn’t intense and running hard, the longer they’ll work. Still, once Gaines is satisfied with how the defense is functioning, he asks them to do it again.

Faster.

Notes

- The Phoenix Mercury has waived forward Jalana Childs, the club announced today. The Mercury roster stands at 14 players and must be trimmed to 11 by May 23.

- Brittney Griner continues to pick up on Gaines’ offensive concepts quickly. There will likely be another adjustment period when the “Big Four” arrive, but Griner has already surpassed expectations.

- Charde Houston is moving with and without the ball better than I’ve ever seen her before; she has a pep in her step again, is focused and determined to make an impact this season.


Posted by Ben York: May 8, 2013

"Day 3: More Running"



The third day of camp might be the most difficult.

Adrenaline gets you through the first day, and familiarity lifts you up on the second.

But the third? Your legs are sore, body becomes increasingly tired and staying mentally sharp can be tricky.

With the type of offense the Mercury runs, there really is never a letdown in training camp. The team has practiced for over two hours each day so far (long by Mercury standards) and over 80 percent of practice involves full-court drills chock-full of sprinting.

“I hate the cold,” said Mercury guard Alexis Hornbuckle. “But ice baths are my best friend during camp.”

Today was more of what the players can expect during practices throughout the year. Gaines and his staff focused on full-court sets in transition, help-side defense and various constructs of the pick and roll.

I’ve been impressed with how sharp the players have remained throughout the duration of each practice. The veterans and returning players (Houston, Hornbuckle, Thorn, Thomas and Prahalis) have made a conscious and deliberate effort to persistently keep the team engaged, focused and motivated.

I expect the intensity level to rise even more when Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner arrive in camp this week.

Notes

- Ify Ibekwe was the last player off the floor today. After practice was over, she performed additional shooting drills with Assistant Coach Julie Hairgrove.

- Today was probably the most physical practice so far. Assistant Coach Earl Cureton had some fun with the padded bag as post players battled for position.

- The team’s spacing and ball-movement have already greatly improved. Indeed, this comes naturally as players spend more time with one another, but it also helps having players in multiple positions (Prahalis, Thomas, Hornbuckle, Houston, Kizer) return to serve as an example for the newbies.


Posted by Ben York: May 7, 2013

"Day 2: Getting to Know the Camp Invitees"



After two days of training camp, it’s easy to sense an increased comfort level from all of the players. There was less time spent on explaining drills and the focus was much improved as a collective whole.

In addition to Sammy Prahalis, Charde Houston, Alexis Hornbuckle, Krystal Thomas, Brittney Griner and Erin Thorn, the Mercury has five invitees at camp this year.

Lynetta Kizer

The X-Factor knows “Ya-Ya” well. Originally selected by Tulsa in the third round (29th overall) of the 2012 WNBA Draft, Kizer appeared in 15 games for the Mercury in 2012 averaging 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. She spent the 2012-13 season playing for the KB Stars in South Korea, averaging 18.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game.

Kizer’s 6-4 frame gives the Mercury another big body down low, but she also has the ability to stretch the floor offensively with her outside shot. Still, her greatest assets to the team are her toughness and rebounding.

Megan Frazee

Drafted by San Antonio in the second round (14th overall) of the 2009 WNBA Draft out of Liberty University, Frazee spent the 2012-13 season playing for the Samsun in Turkey, averaging 18.7 points, 34.1 minutes and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Frazee is a strong, tough defender and can also hit the outside shot when needed. Her ball-handling skills allow her to play multiple positions on the floor; Frazee prides herself on being versatile.

Ify Ibekwe

Selected by Seattle in the second round (24th overall) of the 2011 WNBA Draft, Ibekwe spent the 2012-13 season playing for Union Hainaut in the French League, averaging 16.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

Ibekwe was a member of the All-Pac-10 First Team for three years in a row at the University of Arizona (2009-2011). She is an extremely athletic forward who is quick to both the basket and the ball. Her long build allows her to defend multiple positions and is a viable option in the Mercury’s transition game. She reminds me of Delisha Milton-Jones.

Nikki Greene

Selected by the Mercury in the third round (26th overall) of the 2013 WNBA Draft, Greene finished her career as the only player in Penn State history with 1,000 points, 900 rebounds and 200 blocks. She also ranks second in Penn State history for career blocks (215), fourth in total rebounds (994) and blocks per game (1.6).

Greene is billed as a hustler and is incredibly strong. Her footwork in the paint on the defensive end of the floor is her greatest skill. At 6-4, she provides another option as a lock-down defender in the post and is aggressive on the glass.

Jalana Childs

Signed with Mercury as a free agent on March 7, 2013, Childs finished her college career with 1,237 points and 503 rebounds at Kansas State in addition to being named to the 2012 All-Big 12 first team. Childs spent the 2012-13 season playing with Hapoel Rishon Le-Zion, averaging 5.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in the Israeli League.

Childs has raw athleticism to accompany her strong 6-2 frame. She has a nice touch around the basket and can score in droves when she gets it going.


Posted by Ben York: May 6, 2013

"Day 1: It Begins"



Excitement.

As you’ll see in the corresponding video interviews, that was the theme of Day 1 of 2013 Phoenix Mercury training camp.

And for good reason. The entire team is fully healthy entering camp this year. They’re also rested and (most importantly) motivated.

“It’s so good to be back on the court with everyone,” Mercury center Krystal Thomas said. “We have a lot of new players right now and they all came into camp prepared. I feel like everyone knew what a Phoenix Mercury training camp was going to be like.”

As Mercury Communications Manager Bret Burchard pointed out, the team didn’t begin half-court drills until roughly 45 minutes into the first practice – everything else was high-tempo and involved the entire length of the court.

Rather, only about 15-20 minutes of the two-hour practice occurred solely in the half-court.

“They’re in good shape,” Head Coach and General Manager Corey Gaines said…with a small caveat. “But they’re not quite in Mercury shape.”

Still, the running and full-court drills were exactly what the team expected.

“We knew what it was going to be like,” said returning Mercury guard Alexis Hornbuckle. “Players came into camp today in pretty good shape and prepared which is a really good sign. That’s how we play. But I was impressed that the new players understood that, too. We all kind of hit a wall towards the end of practice today, but it’s the first practice of the first day of camp, so we’ll get it sooner than later.”

Notes

- We’ll help you get to know the entire team again over the next couple of weeks through articles and exclusive videos, but it might be beneficial to know everyone who’s here. Returning players include Sammy Prahalis, Alexis Hornbuckle, Krystal Thomas, Charde Houston and Lynetta Kizer. The new Mercury players are Erin Thorn, Megan Frazee, Brittney Griner, Nikki Greene, Jalana Childs and Ify Ibekwe.

- Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree will all arrive later this week.

- Charde Houston, Sammy Prahalis, Alexis Hornbuckle and Krystal Thomas are in noticeably fantastic shape. Houston said she has lost over 20 pounds and is in the best shape of her life while Sammy Prahalis has made a 180 degree change in her diet for the better. Prahalis refers to it as “eating clean.”

- Corey Gaines described Sammy Prahalis as “relaxed” this year, and it has already shown in her play. She’s more vocal, confident and assertive on the floor.

- Not surprisingly, Alexis Hornbuckle was the vocal leader at practice and made a point to continually elevate the intensity level in every single drill. Her toughness set the tone from the start.

- Brittney Griner picked up on the Mercury’s high-octane offense quickly. “I made a few mistakes here and there, but I made sure to correct them right away,” she said.

- “Now she can dunk.” – Mercury Equipment Manager Eric Hallman, in reference to Brittney Griner, after the North practice court hoop was reinforced. Griner dunked a total of nine times during her first WNBA practice.