By Grant Afseth
The landscape of the WNBA changed for the upcoming season after Seattle Storm superstar Breanna Stewart suffered a torn Achilles during overseas play.
As it currently stands, the Phoenix Mercury appear to be serious contenders to win the 2019 WNBA Finals. After falling short of eliminating the Storm in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, they went back to the drawing board to find ways to defeat Seattle with Stewart leading the charge.
Phoenix entered draft night with a mission to become a deeper team and they feel as though they accomplished exactly that by selecting Alanna Smith, Brianna Turner, and Sophie Cunningham. They wanted to get younger and more athletic but did not want to sacrifice skill and feel for the game.
“Our goal going into the draft was to get younger, more athletic and we think we clearly accomplished that,” Pitman said. “We wanted to add basketball players though and we think we did that with the three players that we got in the first 13 picks.”
“We are not a young team. We are an older team. While we are still trying to win now, and that’s our goal, to win a championship this year and we think with these three pieces, we are able to get much closer to that. We have to start thinking about the future and we think we really solidified the start of that tonight.”
The rookie that most likely could make the greatest immediate impact for the Mercury appears to be Smith. She stands at 6’4” and possesses a versatile offensive skill-set as a stretch-four that can also score in the paint. She could fit seamlessly alongside their stars like Diana Taurasi, Britney Griner, and DeWanna Bonner.
With that last 3-pointer Alanna joined an exclusive group.@ncaawbb players to have careers of 1,600 points, 200 blocks and 150 made 3-pointers over the past 20 years.
— Stanford Women’s Basketball (@StanfordWBB) March 23, 2019
Smith is coming off a highly impressive senior campaign with the Stanford Cardinal with averages of 19.4 points (51.5% FG, 39.7% 3P, 73% FT), 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.2 blocks. Her production featured a rare combination of high volume scoring, shot blocking, and perimeter shooting.
The main offensive strengths in Smith’s arsenal starts with her knockdown spot-up jumper but also includes her ability to drive from the perimeter, score in the post, run the floor in transition, and move without the ball as a cutter. She has basically everything a team would in a stretch-four.
The game should be simplified for her as a complementary piece alongside dynamic playmakers early in her career. It should only help that she already has familiarity with head coach Sandy Brondello from their time together on the Australian national team.
“I don’t think you can ever have too many shooters,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “We have a big three and that puts so much pressure on them but if you have shooters around them that can make shots then what do they do then? So, Alanna was key for us and that was a need for us. A four player that can shoot the three and stretch.
“She’s not just a shooter, there is other things to her game. Obviously, there is familiarity with me coaching her on the Australian national team. She’s just a great kid who works hard and she’s just going to get better and better. We are very excited to have her join the Mercury.”
The potential that Smith has as a WNBA player is not limited to just the offensive end of the floor. She may need some time to adjust to the demands of sliding her feet to stay in front of players on the perimeter and to guard pick-and-rolls but her shot blocking ability should be a benefit to Phoenix immediately.
There was a need for the Mercury to add a stretch-four in the offseason given that Sancho Lyttle is coming off a season-ending injury. They had to use Bonner as a small-ball power forward after Lyttle’s injury but adding Smith will give them more viable lineup combinations.
“We are going to put our best team that we can put on the floor every night,” Pitman said. “With our season being 34 games in just over 100 days, you need to depth, you need to have players that can play at any moment because you never know when injuries are going to occur.
“Having that extra depth is really important to us and having youth that can contribute and recover quickly is something that winning teams have to have.”
The trade for Brianna Turner helped to further bolster the front-court depth of the Mercury. She plays the game with real tenacity on defense and boasts an interior oriented offensive skill-set that could allow them to execute well playing different styles with various lineup combinations.
The 6’3″ forward played an integral role in Notre Dame’s success as she averaged 14.4 points (63.1% FG, 70.2% FT), 7.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.8 blocks during the regular season. She managed to produce impressive individual statistics despite coming off a torn ACL and playing on such a talented team.
What could earn Turner playing time is that she has a versatile defender that match the physicality of post-up threats while having the quickness to cover ground against smaller players. She is also a proficient defensive rebounder and that is an area where the Mercury need to improve.
With Smith and Turner being capable of playing multiple positions and having cohesive skill-sets, they could potentially play together at some point. Both players will make the Mercury a deeper team now but could form an intriguing tandem down the line.
“The opportunity to add Breanna Turner presented itself and it was a piece that we felt was really complementary to everything else that we were drafting,” Pitman said. “We think that Turner and Smith can play well together as we move forward.”
Phoenix continued their excellence in the draft with the selection of Sophie Cunningham early in the second round. The 6’1″ guard can play multiple positions and has a lethal perimeter jumper, a microwave scoring ability, and her style has even earned some comparisons to Taurasi.
“We love her toughness,” Pitman said. “We love her ability to score and make plays and make the players around her better. We just think she brings the intangibles that make the Phoenix Mercury who we are.”
The dynamic scoring guard averaged 17.8 points (48.1% FG, 40.3% 3P, 83.8% FT), 5.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.3 blocks in 2018-19 for Missouri. Her ability to rise to the occasion as a closer was put on full display during close games as the unquestioned leader of the Tigers and that should only help her as a professional.
Cunningham will provide a boost to the floor spacing that Phoenix has in their half-court offense with her spot-up shooting ability. They could even implement additional dimensions to their offensive attack due to her impact as a shooter when coming off-screens and as a cutter.
She showed some flashes as a pick-and-roll ball handler and was solid in isolation situations but will likely need to adjust to the professional level before thriving at creating off the dribble. It should be a real benefit to her to be able to play a complementary role early in her career.
It is not often that a team that is coming off a conference finals appearance is able to add three rookies that have high potential long-term and address immediate needs. That is why some believe that the Mercury had the best draft night haul in the league.
“We are just so happy. You never know how the draft is going to go and it went pretty good for us today,” Brondello said. “We got really good players. That is going to help us for a really long time, so it’s not just like picking them to fill some spots.
“These are players that can play in the WNBA for a very long time and that’s good for us because we know we are getting a little older and the goal is to win. Diana has a window. We want to win now. We added the right pieces that can help us.”
Playing time may not always be consistent or guaranteed for the new rookies on the Mercury. Even if they do not receive playing time right away, they will have no shortage of valuable learning opportunities by being able to learn from the greatest player in league-history on a daily basis.
“How lucky are they? This is the G.O.A.T. The greatest player of all-time to learn and what they will learn from Diana is that even though she is up there in age, she comes out and trains harder than anybody,” Brondello said. “She puts 100% into her craft and she’s very professional and she there is no taking it easy and you actually have to sit her out of practice.
“Just to see what she has done and how greatness can be achieved by all the work that is done on the practice court. When Diana comes to practice, she comes to practice and I think the young players will learn from that.”
The talent that was already on this Mercury team heading into draft night was enough for the franchise to compete for their fourth WNBA championship. Becoming a deeper team after draft night will only help their efforts and it only makes matters better that their long-term future looks brighter too.