Taurasi Brings Star Power

By Brad Falduto
East Valley Tribune
April 18, 2004

She has yet to arrive in the Valley, but Diana Taurasi already is packing in fans for the Phoenix Mercury.

At 6 a.m., three hours before the WNBA draft was to start Saturday morning, Mercury fans were lined up outside the teamís draft headquarters at a downtown Phoenix bar in hopes of getting in to watch the televised selections at the teamís official draft party.

Only 300 of the estimated 500 fans were allowed in. The rest were relegated to the Mercury team shop across the street at America West Arena, where TVs quickly were set up. A few minutes after the draft began, the Mercury faithful erupted into cheers as Phoenix made Taurasi, a 6-foot point guard, the top pick in the draft.

The Taurasi era has begun.

A three-time NCAA champion at the University of Connecticut and two-time Naismith player of the year (2003, 2004), Taurasi is the first No. 1 pick for any Phoenix professional sports team.

"This is a tremendous day in Phoenix Mercury history," general manager Seth Sulka said. "All we can do without projecting to what sheís going to do in the pros is look at what she has done in college. . . . It is going to impact our organization in an extremely positive way."

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Phoenix was able to pick Taurasi mainly because it had the least number of victories (eight) in the WNBA last season. Understandably, few victories translated into small crowds. Taurasi realizes she is being viewed as the savior to raise both of those totals.

"Iím excited," said Taurasi, a native of Chino, Calif., who averaged 15 points per game over her college career. "Weíve got a young team and a new coach (Carrie Graf) and new players, so hopefully, we can turn it around.

"After four years at UConn, I think I am well prepared for the pressure. I have fun with basketball, and I enjoy it. Iím looking forward to coming to Phoenix. I look forward to the challenge."

Mercury All-Star forward Adrian Williams was as giddy as the fans when Taurasiís name was announced as the first pick.

"I can honestly say when they announced her name, I was so happy," Williams said. "I really had a genuine happiness about it and just a smile came over my face."

Landing Taurasi was only the beginning of a busy morning for Sulka and his staff. By the time it was over, the Mercury had six new players, including 6-foot-8 Lindsay Taylor, who prepped at Chandler High.

The biggest prize beside Taurasi was Shereka Wright, a 5-10 forward from Purdue. Wright came with a couple of bonuses as Sulka prearranged a deal with the Detroit Shock. The Mercury used their second pick ó the eighth overall ó to select University of Houston guard Chandi Jones. The Shock made Wright the No. 13 pick and then sent her to the Mercury along with the No. 23 pick and third-year point guard Sheila Lambert in exchange for Jones.

With the 14th pick, the Mercury chose Tennessee forward Ashley Robinson. They used the 23rd pick on guard Erika Valek of Purdue. With the 27th, their final pick, the Mercury took University of Oklahoma point guard Maria Villarroel and then sent her to Houston for the rights to Taylor, who played at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Sulka said making the trade for Wright ó who averaged 20.1 points per game this past season ó was a no-brainer.

"We were not convinced on any one person at 8 by too far a margin," said Sulka. "Now, if someone from the top seven had slipped into 8, we donít make the trade."

Wright, a Texas native, was happy to go from Detroit to Phoenix.

"I didnít know the situation at first when I got drafted," said Wright, who once roomed with Taurasi at a high school all-star game, "but then saying it was Phoenix playing with some great players definitely honored me. I think this is a situation that is going to be good."

Mercury third-year forward Kayte Christensen played two seasons at Santa Barbara with Taylor, considered to be a huge project.

"I would describe her as a project," Christensen said. "A lot of it initially is going to be strength. Itís a different level going from college to the WNBA and she is going to be a huge target for people, but sheís got something you canít teach ó height."

COPYRIGHT 2004, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.