Inside the W with Michelle Smith: Meet the Four New Head Coaches

Sandy Brondello, Becky Hammon, Vanessa Nygaard and Tanisha Wright. All four of these women have worn WNBA uniforms at some point in their basketball career, establishing the connection between past, present, and future. A symbol of the WNBA, as it heads into its 26th season.

Four WNBA teams have new head coaches heading into 2022. Their experience both as WNBA players and coaches running a gamut that honors the legacy of a league.

Having four former players land head coaching jobs during the off-season brings the total of female coaches in the WNBA to eight and the number of former players serving as WNBA head coaches to six, including Seattle’s Noelle Quinn and Dallas’ Vickie Johnson.

The Superstar

Becky Hammon’s hiring as the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces sent shockwaves of excitement through the WNBA, bringing home a franchise legend, who became a household name during her time as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs.

The first female full-time assistant coach in any of the four major sports in North America, Hammon has blazed numerous trails, including serving as the first female acting head coach in NBA history in 2020 and the first woman head coach in the NBA’s summer league in 2015. In addition, she’d been considered for numerous NBA head coaching jobs since she began working for the Spurs in 2014.

Hammon’s WNBA legacy is equally rich. Undrafted, she signed with the New York Liberty out of Colorado State and played eight seasons in New York, finishing her career in San Antonio from 2007-2014. A six-time All-Star who led her teams to 13 playoffs appearances, Hammon has been named to the WNBA’s anniversary teams in 2011, 2016 and 2021 and is considered one of the best guards in league history.

The Aces will be Hammon’s first full-time head coaching job and she inherits an experienced team that is hungry to win a championship. Las Vegas will continue to build around centerpiece A’ja Wilson, with an exciting veteran backcourt that includes WNBA champion Chelsea Gray, Olympic gold medalists Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young, and 6th Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby.

The Veteran

Brondello, who played in the WNBA from 1998 to 2003 for Detroit, Miami and Seattle, makes a move from west to east that few probably saw coming after she led the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA Finals last fall. Brondello is the most known among the four from a head coaching perspective.

She has been a head coach in the league for nine seasons, her first stint as a head coach coming for the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2010, followed by eight seasons in Phoenix from 2014-2021, where she won a title in her first season and made the playoffs every year for the next seven years.

In New York, Brondello will be part of another reboot for a franchise that has been in rebuild mode for a few years now, on its fourth head coach since 2017. Brondello’s years in Phoenix were anchored by future Hall of Famers Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner and elite talents such as DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

This is going to be a different project for Brondello, as she takes a team that went 12-20 last season, barely made it into the playoffs, and is still in its potential phase with Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, and rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere.

The Liberty’s big free-agency acquisition was Stefanie Dolson, coming off her title-winning run in Chicago. She will bring experience inside to go with Natasha Howard.

The Homecoming Queen

Vanessa Nygaard was born in Scottsdale, Arizona, raised in Southern California, and finds her way back to her home state as the first new head coach of the Phoenix Mercury since 2014.

Nygaard, who coached as an assistant in Bill Laimbeer’s staff in Las Vegas last season and has served as an assistant in San Antonio (2008) and Washington (2009), comes to her first WNBA head coaching position after 11 years coaching a highly successful high school program in Southern California, Windward Academy, which produced Los Angeles Sparks guard Jordin Canada.

Nygaard played six seasons in the WNBA from 1999-2003 for Cleveland, Portland, Miami and Los Angeles. Of all of the new head coaches, Nygaard might be best positioned for immediate success, provided a loaded roster, with a pair of big free-agent signings and sights set firmly on a championship run.

To complement Taurasi, Griner, Diggins-Smith, the Mercury signed five-time All-Star Tina Charles as well as Diamond DeShields, coming off her title in Chicago.

“When I looked at the commitment to winning here, the resources from ownership, the partnership with the Suns, and the roster in place, I knew this was where I wanted to be,” Nygaard said.

The Newbie

With 14 years of WNBA playing experience under her belt, Tanisha Wright is nobody’s rookie, but she comes to the Atlanta Dream for her first head coaching job with the challenge of stabilizing a Dream roster that went through as much tumult as anyone in 2021.

Wright began her playing career in 2005, and spent 10 years in Seattle, winning a championship in 2010. She moved to New York and Minnesota before closing out her long WNBA career back in New York in 2019.

Wright, an assistant in Las Vegas in 2020 and 2021, teams with new general manager Dan Padover (also coming from Las Vegas) to put this franchise back together after going through three head coaches last season, the suspension of a young player, and an off-court altercation that led to parting ways with a pair of veteran players.

The acquisition of Erica Wheeler from Los Angeles to pair with veteran Tiffany Hayes will hopefully provide Wright a backcourt anchor for a team that may be saving their biggest splash for the seasons to come, not to mention a No. 3 pick in the draft, which could yield them a very good player out of this class.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.