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The Curious Case of Diana Taurasi: Inside Diana’s Resurgence

We all know the standard professional basketball career arc. After entering the league as a rookie, the player will steadily improve as his or her game develops and adapt to the new level of competition; the player will reach his or her prime as physical abilities and mental acumen for the game reach their peak, before a steady decline begins as the player ages, loses some of their physical tools, deals with injuries and eventually retires.

When I say “we” all know about that career arc, that “we” does not include Diana Taurasi, who is defying the standard career trajectory in her 14th WNBA season at the age of 36.

Before Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury open the 2018 WNBA Playoffs against Dallas tonight (8:30 PM ET, ESPN 2), let’s take a moment and appreciate what the veteran guard did this season.

Taurasi’s 20.7 points per game not only ranked third in the WNBA — it was her highest scoring average since 2011, when she won her record fifth WNBA scoring title. She’s a top three scorer in the league at an age when most players have already retired.

Take a closer look at the rest of the top 10. They range from age 22 (rookie A’ja Wilson) to 29 (Tina Charles and Maya Moore), with an average age of 27 years old. That is usually the sweet spot for a professional player; they have enough experience to know the game inside and out, while still having all of the physical tools needed to play at an elite level. Taurasi is doing this nine years later.

Taurasi made a conscious decision to adjust her game to take more efficient shots this season. She has eliminated long 2-pointers and instead concentrates on shooting 3s, getting layups or getting to the free throw line. And the numbers back this up. Her 5.3 2-point attempts per game were a career low; her 8.4 3-point attempts this year were her second-highest total ever and most in 12 years (9.0 in 2006); and her 5.6 free throw attempts were her highest since 2013.

The all-time leader in 3-pointers made led the WNBA in total threes for the ninth time in her 14 seasons; she has never finished lower than fourth in total 3-pointers made, with her lowest total coming in her rookie season.

Taurasi not only led the Mercury in scoring, she also led them in assists with her 5.3 assists per game, which ranked fourth in the WNBA this season. That combination of top-level scoring and assisting is quite rare in WNBA history. According to Basketball Reference’s Season Finder Tool, there have only been four seasons in league history when a player averaged at least 20 points and five assists per game. Taurasi now has two of those four seasons.

20-Point, 5-Assist Seasons, WNBA History
– Cynthia Cooper (1999): 22.1 PPG, 5.2 APG
– Diana Taurasi (2013): 20.3 PPG, 6.2 APG
– Skylar Diggins-Smith (2014): 20.1 PPG, 5.0 APG
– Diana Taurasi (2018): 20.7 PPG, 5.3 APG
Source: Basketball Reference

There are 19 players in WNBA history that have played at least 14 seasons in the league. When looking at each of those players’ 14th seasons, none comes close to matching Taurasi’s offensive production. Only eight other players averaged double figures in scoring in their 14th season, with Tina Thompson’s 16.6 points per game in 2010 being the closest to Taurasi’s 20.7. In terms of assists, only Sue Bird (5.8 in 2016) topped Taurasi’s 5.3 from this season as Taurasi matched Becky Hammon’s mark in 2012.

So what is the secret to Taurasi’s longevity? She has discussed the changes she’s made to her diet and improved conditioning. She also cut her international season in Russia short as she returned to the U.S. in January as she and her spouse Penny Taylor prepared for the birth of their first child, a son, who was born on March 1.

While sleep is a rare commodity for new parents, Taurasi did get some basketball rest as she was not playing year-round. She still worked out diligently to prepare for the upcoming WNBA season and participated in training camp for the first time since her rookie season in 2004.

No matter how Taurasi found the fountain of youth, the end result was an outstanding season – not just for a player in her 14th year, but a player in any year of her career. Behind the All-Star trio of Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner, the Mercury enter the postseason as a dangerous team with championship aspirations as they look for their fourth WNBA title.

The Mercury have to make the most of these playoff runs with Taurasi, because at some point the fountain of youth has to run dry. With the way she’s played this season, that could be years from now, but eventually Father Time will win the battle.

Last year, when Taurasi signed a contract extension through the 2020 season, she joked that she “signed a tombstone.” Considering what she has done in 2018, she may sign a new contract before she signs off and calls it a career.