Diana Taurasi: Better Than Ever
Despite everything she has accomplished over the years – the scoring titles, championships, gold medals, etc. – Diana Taurasi has never played basketball at a higher level than she is now.
With just six games remaining in the 2013 WNBA season, Taurasi is averaging 20.7 points, second-most in the league overall, and a career-high 6.1 assists, second-most in the WNBA. If the season ended today, she would become the first player in league history to average at least 20.0 points and 6.0 assists in the same season. Taurasi is currently on a streak of six-straight games with at least five assists (six total in seven games under Russ Pennell). She has averaged 7.7 assists since the coaching change.
In addition to points and assists, Taurasi averages 4.1 rebounds. Consider this: the only NBA players to average at least 21-4-6 in 2012-13 were Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry – and they play 48-minute games instead of 40 (Taurasi averages 32 minutes of action per game compared to a cumulative average of 38.6 with the aforementioned NBA players).
In terms of scoring, Taurasi (20.7) trails just Angel McCoughtry (21.6) for the league lead. No other player in WNBA history has won more scoring titles than Taurasi, who is certainly still in the race to grab her sixth title in the last eight seasons. In 2013, Taurasi has amassed three efforts of 30 points, five rebounds and five assists (giving her a WNBA-record 13 for her career). Furthermore, she’s tallied a league-leading 16 20-point games this season to go along with seven games of at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.
But Taurasi’s career-defining season (she’s on pace to eclipse both her points and assists totals from her MVP season in 2009) consists of so much more than points, rebounds and assists.
“Having played with her for so long, she’s doing what she’s always done,” said Penny Taylor. “This year, she’s taken more of a leadership role because she’s in the point guard position. That’s a leadership role on the court as well as off the court, which she’s always done. In that role, you’re directing traffic; you’re living, breathing, thinking the game because you have to make sure each player on the court or on the bench is in the right position and ready to play. She’s expected a lot of everyone every day. She does that because she expects so much of herself.
“She expects everyone to rise to that level and that’s what has made so many people so good playing here over the years – that expectation from her.”
Case in point: take a look at Taurasi’s numbers against their recent win over the Connecticut Sun. She tallied 10 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and five blocked shots – numbers that no other player in the history of the WNBA has ever achieved in a single game.
More significant, it was her in-game adjustments on both ends of the floor that led to a more free-flowing and disciplined attack.
“One of her greatest attributes is knowing what the team needs in the moment,” said Mercury Interim Head Coach Russ Pennell. “I think that’s huge. Great players get that. We won our last game [against the Connecticut Sun] and she only took seven shots. Yet, she had a major impact on the game. There are very few great players who can do that. Chris Paul is one of those players that is doing it now in the NBA. What’s really amazing to me is that Diana isn’t a true point guard; she’s a combo guard. But she’s been able to morph herself into what this team needs.
“We certainly don’t want her to quit scoring the ball, but boy has she been good about getting everybody involved.”
As much of a difficult situation as it was for Pennell to assume interim head coaching duties midway through the 2013 Mercury season, one could argue that Taurasi’s adjustment to two vastly different coaches and basketball philosophies on the fly was even more cumbersome.
Still, Taurasi hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, she’s modified several aspects of her game for the greater good while managing to keep the team united in the midst of adversity. As cliché as it may sound, Taurasi’s greatest strength this year has been her unrivaled leadership even when taking into account her remarkable stats.
Earlier in the season, she made a conscious choice to be more vocal with the team during practice and in games. Now, under a coach like Pennell who assumes more of the verbal guidance, Taurasi leads by example – getting to practice early, staying late to shoot and then returning to the court later in the evening for another workout.
Perhaps more so than any other year, Taurasi has exhibited true humility throughout the Mercury’s roller-coaster season. Rather than go out of her way to impress or change who she is, she’s remained her genuine self in every sense of the word.
Focused. Motivated. Driven.
People – more precisely, her teammates – are magnetically drawn to (and inspired by) that character trait.
“Anytime the ball is in her hand, good stuff happens,” Taylor added. “The ball is in her hands 90 percent of the time this year. It’s exciting – the no-look passes. The work she, Candice [Dupree] and DeWanna [Bonner] do together is really fun to watch. She’s so excited for Brittney [Griner] and what she can bring to this team. For her, a big source of excitement is seeing the young girls come through – how they can improve and how she can help them improve.”
And when a team has that level belief in themselves and each other, anything can happen.
“For me, personally, the reason this transition has worked so far is because of her,” Russ Pennell glowingly said about Taurasi. “She has been so accommodating to everything we’re trying to do and kind of carrying the torch to the rest of the women on the team. They look to her. For someone as good as Diana, the interesting part to me is how team-oriented she is. Everything is about the team for Diana. Does she have pride in her trade? Yeah, absolutely she does. But it’s about the team. That has been the uniqueness of her.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever coached someone of her status that has been so gung-ho for everyone else doing well.”
Diana Taurasi doesn’t care about winning the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player award.
But that selfless approach to leadership is exactly why, in this writer’s opinion, she is the MVP.