Phoenix Mercury: 2006 Preview
Calling new Mercury Head coach Paul Westhead's teams "up-tempo" is like calling the Grand Canyon a big hole in the ground. It doesn't quite tell the entire story.
"In its simplest form," Westhead explained on PhoenixMercury.com, "the fastbreak offense is initiated with possession of the ball, so we need good outlet passes to our point guard off rebounds or baskets. Our point guard needs to speed-dribble right to the opponent's basket and our wing players need to race down the court - sprint to their spots - in two or three seconds. The outlet player needs to trail rapidly for either a rebound or shot. We need to beat the defense down the court. It's a speed game and everyone needs to quickly get to their spots for us to be successful."
Get all that?
For Mercury fans, "Paul Ball" means a frenetic pace that will ensure entertaining , high-scoring games. For the players, the style demands supreme conditioning and constant effort. Since pushing the ball is paramount to the system's success, the team stocked up on ball handlers, starting with Cappie Pondexter, their selection with the second overall pick in the 2006 Draft.
Pondexter, a 5-9 guard from Rutgers, is the first player in Big East conference history to be selected all first-team in four straight seasons. The consensus Big East Player of the Year and first team All-America point guard averaged 21.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists and was a 48.8 percent shooter from three-point range.
"She's an unselfish player who at the same time gives us another option in the clutch because she can create her own shot," Westhead said.
All three point guards are capable scorers, but one of their primary objectives will be getting the ball to last year's point guard, Diana Taurasi, who moves to her more natural shooting guard position. Taurasi was the league's 4th leading scorer (16.0) in her second season. Her versatility and tenacity should make her a good fit in Westhead's up-tempo style.
Joining Taurasi on the wing is Penny Taylor, a five-year veteran who has quietly become one of the game's most efficient players. For the second straight season, Taylor finished among the top 20 in field goal percentage (.464), three-point percentage (.404) and free throw percentage (.864). Last year, Taylor matched her career-best scoring average (13.2 ppg) and also chipped in 4.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a team-best 1.3 steals per game.
To fortify the wing positions, the Mercury signed free agent guard Bridget Pettis, an original member of the Mercury, acquired the draft rights to UConn's Ann Strother in a trade with Houston and drafted Crystal Smith of Iowa in the third round.
For all the depth in the frontcourt, the Mercury is woefully thin in the paint, where Kamila Vodichkova (10.9 points, 7.0 rebounds last year) is the team's only proven commodity.
Six-foot-eight shot blocker Maria Stepanova will not return. Ashley Robinson, a 6-4 center, was taken by Chicago in the expansion draft. Shereka Wright, among the most promising of several young players vying for regular duty, tore an Achilles tendon in training camp and will be lost for the season.
Attrition provides a great opportunity for 2005 draft picks Sandora Irvin and Angelina Williams to step up after quiet rookie seasons. Irvin, a 6-3 forward who was the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, blocked nearly four shots per game in college. Williams, a 6-06 forward, was the Mercury's second round pick a year ago.
Frontcourt problems notwithstanding, a playoff berth shouldn't be a tall order for the Mercury, who were only one game off the pace (16-18) a year ago. Watching them get there will undoubtedly be an entertaining ride.