Role Players Stepping Up for the Mercury

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The Phoenix Mercury have opened the 2019 WNBA regular season with a 1-1 record. They came up short against the Seattle Storm in their opener losing 77-68. Then, they pulled off an impressive 86-84 win over the Las Vegas Aces.

The difference for the Mercury early in the season has been the offensive production of their veteran role players. Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner are star talents, but no two players are enough to win without help. They need adequate support from their teammates to convert close games into wins.

Against the Storm, Bonner (31) and Griner (18) combined for 49 of the Mercury’s 68 points. No other player managed to reach double-figure scoring and the rest of the team combined for only 29 points. It comes with little surprise that they failed to come out on top in this game.

It was a different story against the Aces at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Essence Carson (20) led the team in scoring during this performance. Coupled with Yvonne Turner (18) and Briann January (16), Phoenix’s supporting cast combined to score 54 points. That level of supporting cast contribution made the difference against Las Vegas, considering that Bonner had only 12 points on 38.5% shooting from the field.

Let’s not forget that Phoenix’s three rookies, Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith, and Brianna Turner, will experience ‘growing pains.’ Those growing pains have manifested early as the rookies have combined to score three points on 1-of-9 (11.1%) shooting from the field through two games.

Until the Mercury can receive net positive results from their draft picks on a consistent basis, they are going to need more offensive production from their veteran role players. That includes players like Essence Carson, Briann January, and Yvonne Turner. They showed their potential against Las Vegas.

Opposing teams are always going to have great respect for Griner and Bonner and place most of their attention on slowing them down. The attention paid to those two routinely creates favorable scoring opportunities for the supporting cast. The role players need to make the opposition pay for their strategies, so Griner and Bonner can get loose. Let’s take a look at which players could step up to fill in for Diana Taurasi:

Essence Carson: Dynamic Scorer

While Taurasi is sidelined, the Mercury will rely on Essence Carson to fill the role of third scoring option. She showed what she is capable of against the Aces as she produced a team-high 20 points. She accomplished that performance through a balance of complementary off-ball scoring and attacking off the dribble.

Carson made a lot of simple plays as an off-ball threat, as response to the defense. Las Vegas made it a point to pressure Bonner when she drove the lane and stayed concentrated on Griner. That defensive focus on Griner opened up easy strong-side catch-and-shoot opportunities for Carson from the corner, as well as an off-screen play resulting in an open jumper.

One of the ultimate keys for Phoenix will be whether Carson can continue to find success as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Against the Aces, Carson made an impact as the PnR ball handler and by creating pull-up jumpers from mid-range and getting to the basket.

Impressively, Carson managed to get to the basket in the pick-and-roll even even when the help defender responsible for the strong-side corner played off their assignment. This is difficult because the help defender is leaving her woman specifically to stop Carson getting to the rim. While Carson still flourished against this approach, she will need to start dishing out to the shooters left open by the helper and make them pay for this strategy.

Vonnie Turner: Facilitator

Yvonne Turner needs to make a real impact as a playmaker. Replacing the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader’s scoring production is important but it is not enough on its own because Taurasi also creates a ton of scoring chances for others. So in addition to the points, role players will need to compensate for DT’s assists and passes.

Turner displayed a real ability to facilitate during the team’s win over the Aces. Vonnie put up 10 assists and helped keep the offense moving. She got most of her assists by playing off Griner. Initially, Turner did her damage by making proper entry passes to Griner in the post and let the superstar take care of the rest.

That’s not all that Turner did in the passing department. She delivered the ball to shooters in stride and in their shooting pocket. She also exploited the focus on Griner with ‘inside-out’ exchanges by quickly attacking off the dribble. These resulted in drive-and-dish passes to her teammates for easy finishes.

Turner’s contributions were certainly not limited to just her passing. She managed to score 18 points and primarily did so by playing off their stars. Turner got a lot of her points off basket cuts when Vegas sent additional pressure to Griner in the post. She also capitalized on catch-and-shoot opportunities when the Aces packed the paint against Bonner’s drives.

Turner displayed genuinely dynamic ability on two particular scoring possessions. The step-back jumper with a hand in her face was something that you don’t often see from a role player. She also converted a the pick-and-roll possession against Liz Cambage into an open layup.

Briann January and Beyond

Briann January does not often initiate plays off the dribble. But she does provide ‘lights out’ shooting, which will be key to filling the void left by Taurasi’s injury. She was perfect on all five of her attempts from beyond the arc and each of her makes played a key role in the swinging momentum of the game.

I don’t expect Phoenix’s supporting cast to produce the level of offensive results that they did against Las Vegas. As long as they are consistently executing on plays within the flow of the game, the Mercury will be in a great position to win games regardless of the opponent. The ultimate key will be if their supporting group can execute on the road.

Teams will eventually have to make a choice between sending heavy defensive pressure to Griner and Bonner or staying home on role players. Forcing the opposition to use a neutral approach would allow the star players to produce more and, ultimately, help win games.

Role players like Carson, Turner, and January not only must make an impact on offense, but also on defense. Each player has been aggressive on-ball and has made their assignment uncomfortable. That aggression is a key reason why this trio combined for five of the eight steals that the Mercury had against the Aces.

Having Sancho Lyttle back in the fold will only help Phoenix’s defensive execution. She made noticeable impact in her return against Las Vegas. She had (by far) a team-best 84.6 defensive rating in 12.2 minutes. Lyttle put her ability to contain dribble penetration and patrol the lane with physicality on display against Vegas’s bigs.

The upcoming schedule for the Mercury will be a great test for their role players. They are set to play three consecutive road games, starting with a matchup against the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday. Then Phoenix will then face the Indiana Fever Sunday and caps off the road trip against the Chicago Sky next Tuesday.

There is a real opportunity for the Mercury to have an all-around impressive team by the time Taurasi returns to the lineup. It will be interesting to see whether their supporting cast veterans (and eventually their rookies) can capitalize on the circumstances.

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Grant Afseth is an Indiana Pacers columnist for the Kokomo Tribune and a Phoenix Mercury writer for WNBAInsidr.

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