Even with the excitement of a new season and an opportunity to put last year’s title loss behind, a notable absence lingers at training camp for the Phoenix Mercury.
Often known for creating a lively atmosphere at practice, the Mercury are without center Brittney Griner as she remains detained in Russia. Griner is awaiting trial next month on charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison.
“There’s no one like her in the whole world. I definitely miss her. It’s not even about basketball anymore, we just want her to be well as a human being. She has a big stage and a lot of people know her, and so yeah, we want her to play on the court. Everyone who knows her loves her and wants her to be safe, so we got to keep praying for her,” guard Sophie Cunningham said.
Navigating the unknown is not an easy task, especially for first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard. But once the staff realized Griner’s return is questionable for the start of the season, they started planning on how to prepare for the impact on the court.
“As a staff, we’ve adjusted knowing that she won’t be here at least for the beginning of the season to change a little bit about what we do offensively and defensively. I do want the players to feel good and it can’t be great. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes worried about BG. All we can do is keep doing what we’re doing and hopefully hold it down here for the Mercury,” Nygaard said.
As uncertain as the future looks for Griner returning to the Mercury this season, the Mercury went through an offseason filled with highs and lows after its loss in the WNBA Finals.
The Mercury underwent changes in personnel after parting ways with head coach Sandy Brondello following eight seasons and hired Nygaard, a first-time WNBA head coach. Nygaard’s staff now includes train ASU assistant Nikki Blue, Cinnamon Lister, and Crystal Robinson. Longtime assistant Julie Hairgrove will not be back with the Mercury after 17 seasons.
Nygaard inherited a roster filled with depth as Phoenix returns starters Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Brianna Turner, while retaining playmakers Cunningham and Shey Peddy.
But the Mercury wanted to address depth issues the team faced down the stretch when guard Kia Nurse went down with an ACL injury and is recovering during this season. The Mercury ended up adding on All-Star talent in wing Diamond DeShields and center Tina Charles through offseason trades.
“Everyone is really excited and obviously the way the year ended, it’s still fresh in our minds and it’s something that we think about. Those little things in Game 4 that slipped are things that you constantly remind yourself. It’s good to have that in the back of your mind. It’s a new group, we have to find the way of getting to know each other, so it’s a work in progress and there’s a lot of excitement in the building,” Taurasi said.
- Guard Kia Nurse was participating in camp and was working on her shot without a knee brace on. Nurse went down on October 6 with a torn right ACL during the semifinals and had the surgery following the Finals. Since then, Nurse has been splitting her time between Phoenix and Toronto working on her rehab. Nygaard is hopeful for a return this season. “She’s doing great, she’s a fantastic athlete, she’s extremely diligent. She’s a real pro and has done her rehab really well,” Nygaard said. “We’re optimistic to get her back hopefully midseason. Her safe return will be the No. 1 priority. We’re not going to bring her back until she’s full go.”
- Wing Diamond DeShields and forward Brianna Turner were both absent from training camp due to overseas commitments. Their timeline to return is to be determined.
- The Mercury added another forward to the mix with four-year WNBA veteran Emma Cannon signing a training camp contract Monday. Cannon joins the forwards group of Kristine Anigwe, Leaonna Odom, Mael Gilles, Sam Thomas, and recent draft picks Maya Dodson and Macee Williams.
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