Waiting for Diana?
“No way. They don’t even talk to me,” Diana Taurasi said of her Phoenix Mercury teammates. “They don’t know I’m around.”
It’s an idea that isn’t really that far-fetched. The Phoenix Mercury know that the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer will be back from spring back surgery at some point. They know that they will be getting one of the fiercest, most all-out competitors on the planet when she returns.
So why not just view this early part of the season as a waiting game, a prelude to a playoff run?
“If that’s true, it’s not coming from the coaching staff,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Maybe our players thought that, and this has been an adversity for us. But it’s also been an opportunity to show our true character.”
The Mercury opened the season with a 2-5 record, something of a surprise for a team that has been viewed as a title contender with a core group that includes All-Stars Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner (currently the league’s leading scorer) and a veteran point guard in Briann January.
Brondello called the start of the season “a little rocky.”
“We needed to stay together and up our effort and activity and movement of the ball,” Brondello said. “I feel like we are getting back to doing that.”
Phoenix now finds itself on a three-game winning streak heading into Friday night’s home game against the improving New York Liberty, including wins over rivals Los Angeles and Seattle.
When they take the court on Friday night against the New York Liberty at home, there’s a good possibility that Taurasi will be with them.
She went through a full practice with her team on Thursday.
“I’m getting better every single day, stronger, more fit,” Taurasi said. “It’s not so much about Friday, but what happens the next day and the next day after that and how we manage the soreness. I haven’t played basketball in eight months, since the World Championships. I’m getting more physically fit. But to be on the court with elite players, you have to be in good physical shape and I’m not sure I’ve scratched the surface of that yet.”
Brondello is still calling Taurasi’s return on Friday a “tentative” one.
“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’,” Brondello said. “It’s great if she’s back. But it’s all her decision and the medical staff. She needs to be comfortable. Her back needs to be feeling good, but the rest of her body too. She’s a little older now.
“But she looks good when she’s out there.”
Taurasi said the recovery from back surgery has been something of a roller-coaster.
“My patience is up and down. Some days I’m good and some days I’m just over it,” Taurasi said. “But I’ve gotten great support and I do have a sense of hope that all the little things will add up and I’ll be where I need to be.”
In the meantime, Taurasi is impressed with the way her team is playing.
“Just like how balanced we are right now. BG and DB have done what they do, and Briann and Leilani have been really good for us,” Taurasi said.
Her injury hasn’t been the only challenge. Veteran forward Sancho Lyttle is coming off an ACL injury. January had offseason surgery. The roster includes three rookies – Alanna Smith, Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner – who are still finding their way in the WNBA.
“It’s been a disruptive start to the season,” Brondello said. “But we are persevering, making sure we get the right people on the floor.”
Brondello said the team has missed not only Taurasi’s scoring, but her leadership and passing. Bonner and Griner both rank among the top 4 scorers in the WNBA.
“We’ve really only had two scorers and we need another if we want to win,” Brondello said. “But when Diana comes back, that will be an adjustment for us too. She hasn’t played all season. She might come back and play just 30 minutes. She needs to be in the right shape to play. But her leadership will help us.
“We will run a few plays to suit her. Tweak a few things defensively. But some things don’t change. She’s the best player on the floor. She is a game-changer. This is Diana Taurasi we are talking about.”
A player worth waiting for.
As many teams throughout the league deal with significant injuries to key players, opportunity has presented itself for a group of players who are filling gaps – minutes, scoring, rebounding. Who is making the most of that opportunity? Let’s take a look.
Mercedes Russell, Seattle. The Storm are currently missing three-fifths of their starting lineup for last year’s championship season. Without Breanna Stewart dominating in the frontcourt, there have been some critical minutes for Mercedes Russell, the Tennessee product who missed her rookie season in 2017. Russell has made 10 starts so far this season for the Storm, averaging 7.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Russell, who played less than six minutes a game last season, has scored 12 points in each of the last two games and is shooting 57% percent from the floor.
Kelsey Mitchell, Indiana. With Victoria Vivians out for the season, Mitchell has assumed the role as the Fever’s go-to scorer from the perimeter. Mitchell (in her second season after finishing as the NCAA’s all-time leading 3-point shooter in women’s basketball) is averaging a career-best 15.1 points a game and has four 20-plus-point games this season, including 21 points against Las Vegas on Saturday. She’s already moved into Indiana’s top 10 all-time 3-point shooters.
Odyssey Sims, Minnesota. On a Lynx team without the familiar presences of Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus, Minnesota has been relying on Sims, who is setting her new team’s offensive pace. She is averaging a team-leading 15.8 points and 5.2 assists per game. She ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring and is settling in nicely after the trade with Los Angeles that sent her to the 4-time WNBA champions.
Leilani Mitchell, Phoenix. Mitchell is a veteran point guard in this league who understands what needs to be done for her team. With Diana Taurasi out, the thing Mitchell has needed to do for the Mercury is to score. She was cut from the Phoenix roster at the start of the season, but they brought her back and she has made herself invaluable. She is averaging 11.9 points with 4.6 assists per game. She put up 23 points against Vegas on June 23 and followed up with an 18-point game against Indiana.
Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas. As one of the top picks in a deep draft class, it’s not really a surprise that Ogunbowale is an impact player. But with Skylar Diggins-Smith out indefinitely after giving birth to a son, the former Notre Dame star has had to play a very big role very quickly on the perimeter and she has responded. After a slow start, the Wings have won two of their last four games and Ogunbowale has scored in double figures in each of those games, including a WNBA career-high 25 points against Las Vegas in that stretch. Ogunbowale was named the WNBA Rookie of the Month for June.
Wings taking flight?
Speaking of Dallas, the Wings appear to be figuring things out under new head coach Brian Agler, who coached the 500th game of his legendary WNBA career last weekend.
After opening the season with six straight losses, the Wings have won four of their last six games, all of their on their home floor. Now they must master the art of winning on the road, where they are 0-5 so far this season. But Dallas has two of its next three games at home and a chance to make a move toward playoff contention.
Winning for the first time in 13 games against Minnesota last weekend had to be a confident boost for this young team.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.