Training Camp Report

By Stefan Swiat,
Posted: May 6, 2008

Although the Mercury’s training camp started just over two weeks ago, most of the team has yet to arrive in Phoenix. In fact, this week marks the first time that a familiar face has been spotted at the United Airways Center. Center Tangela Smith and backup point guard Jen Derevjanik reported to camp this week, as has free agent pickup Barbara Farris.

Up until this point, the WNBA Champions have been auditioning a group of six players to fill two open slots on the roster. Head coach Corey Gaines believes that he will add two players by the end of camp. Currently, the two that have made the most impression on him play in the backcourt, although Phoenix will most likely decide to sign one post player and one perimeter player.

The two rookies that have stood out the most have been Utah's Leilani Mitchell and Japanese import Yuko Oga.

“Shin (Oga) and Leilani are both up-tempo point guards that fit into the system well,” Gaines said. “Shin has her speed and Leilani has her skills.”

Although former head coach Paul Westhead is an assistant coach for the Seattle SuperSonics, Gaines has kept his run-and-gun legacy alive in Phoenix. Almost all of the drills throughout practice consist of a fast-breaking element. The practices are upbeat, relentless and focused on adapting players to the Mercury’s break-neck pace.

“We started off with two-a-day practices, but we have tapered it down from there,” the Mercury coach said. “It’s something that you have to get used to.”

Gaines knows through experience. As the point guard for Westhead’s explosive offense at Loyola Marymount in the 1980’s, he is completely aware of the type of fitness players need to possess to perform within a running system.

“It takes about 10 days to tear the muscles down and then the muscles build back up as they get used to it,” the rookie coach noted.

While some of the new players are adjusting, the veteran Smith has picked up where she left off. There is a drill called the “cycle” that players have to be able to complete in 26 seconds. The new players have been clocking in times of 30, while Smith came in the first day and finished the drill in 25 seconds.

Smith, who spent her offseason playing in Russia, still believes she has room for improvement.

“I am in good shape from playing and practicing everyday over there, but you have to prepare yourself more for this type of basketball,” she said. “I think I’ll be good in a couple of days.”

One of the key components from last season’s title run, the 6-4 center averaged 12.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 2007.

“I was ready to come back because I was excited about us winning the championship and getting back to my teammates,” Smith said.

While Smith waits patiently for the arrival of her squad, her teammates continue to finish their season’s playing abroad. For example, Diana Taurasi and Kelly Miller continue to play for Spartak in Russia, while Cappie Pondexter is winding up her season with Fenerbahce in Turkey. Penny Taylor’s status is up in the air, as is fellow Aussie Belinda Snell’s, who are representing Australia in the Olympics. The Mercury hope to have most of their club together by the first game.

“It’s just a matter of getting everyone here, getting our chemistry back, jelling and introducing the new players that do make our team to our system,” Smith said. “It’s a hard system to learn and it takes some time, but hopefully they’ll be ready to step up and learn from the older players.”

One of those veteran players is guard Kelly Mazzante, who signed a four-year deal with the Mercury in February. In addition, the Merc have acquired the services of the nine-year veteran Farris. Farris, who came over from the Liberty, won a WNBA Championship in Detroit. She will provide the same type of experience and leadership that Olympia Scott displayed last season, while also helping the team on the blocks.

“Barb is very vocal, knows the league and is strong down low,” Gaines said.

So as the returning players begin filing in during the next few weeks, Gaines predicts that the intensity of practice will slowly diminish due to the fitness level and familiarity of his players.

“Since they already have built their foundation, know the offense and the “rover” zone, it won’t take long to get everyone back on the same page,” Gaines said.

And while it may take a while for everyone to get back to Phoenix, one thing is for certain, the returning players are excited to be back in the Valley of the Sun.

“Oh my God, it feels so good to be home,” Smith exclaimed.

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