WNBA Season Preview: The Phoenix Mercury Added More Than Skylar Diggins-Smith

The Phoenix Mercury made the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith is a four-time WNBA All-Star and has made the All-WNBA First Team twice. Phoenix adding her while only giving up draft picks has the potential to be a championship winning move.

But today, we’re not talking about Diggins-Smith, other than to mention her when applicable while discussing other players. The 2020 Mercury roster looks a lot different than the 2019 version, and it’s those other additions who really have the ability to push this team over the top. Adding a star is great, but adding useful talent around that star is when things can really take off.

And the Mercury sure did add some needed talent to this team. Not counting Diggins-Smith or Diana Taurasi (who appeared in just six games and might as well be considered a new addition to the 2020 team) there are five players on Phoenix’s roster that weren’t part of the team last year: Jessica Breland, Nia Coffey, Bria Hartley, Kia Vaughn, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.

Those players will have to replace a lot of production that isn’t on this team anymore. Last year’s leading scorer Brittney Griner is still holding things down in the paint, but the team’s second-leading scorer, DeWanna Bonner, is gone. So is the third-leading scorer, Leilani Mitchell. And the fourth-leading scorer, Briann January, and the sixth-leading scorer Essence Carson, while fifth-leading scorer Yvonne Turner is on the suspended list after suffering an injury overseas.

Basically, this is an entirely new team than the one that went 15-19 last season and lost to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.

Among the new acquisitions, Breland and Coffey have the best chance to crack Phoenix’s starting five.

Jessica Breland 

Breland joins the Mercury after two seasons with the Atlanta Dream. She has been in the league since 2011. I’d imagine the Mercury go with a Brittney Griner and Breland frontcourt and let me tell you something — I’m excited about that.

2019 was really a lost season for the Atlanta Dream, who posted the WNBA’s worst record. But it was a year of transition for Breland’s game, as she attempted a career-high 1.2 threes per game. Her 38 three-point attempts were 38 more than she attempted in 2018.

Here was Breland’s shot chart in 2018:

It’s almost unbelievable how many of those shots came just inside the three-point line. She did fine overall on shots between the arc and the paint, shooting 41.7%, which was above the league average of 39.2%. But it’s still usually a bad idea to take shots from just inside the three-point line, because they’re essentially just as hard to make as a three but come with significantly less upside.

Her 2019 shot chart shows an attempt to rectify that:

But regardless of where Breland’s foot is exactly at when she lifts up for a jump shot, one thing is clear: her ability to operate outside of the paint will be a good thing for the Mercury and center Brittney Griner. With DeWanna Bonner gone, Sandy Brondello needs to find ways to draw defenses away from the paint and away from Griner.

Overall, Breland’s impact on the offensive side of the ball took a sharp turn down over the last few years, with her posting her two worst Offensive Player Impact Plus/Minuses of her career in the previous two seasons. That’s something to be concerned about, although there’s also plenty to be said about a new landscape creating new opportunities for a player.

Breland also adds to Phoenix defensively. A member of the 2018 All-Defensive team, Breland’s posted a positive Defensive Player Impact Plus/Minus in every season of her career. In 2018, her +3.76 D-PIPM led the WNBA. Last year, playing for a fairly bad Atlanta team, her +2.02 D-PIPM ranked seventh in the league. She’s a hugely impactful defender and someone capable of guarding all around the court.  Pairing her with Griner in the frontcourt will create what’s almost certainly going to be the WNBA’s best defensive front this season. Griner’s impact on that end has fallen off over the past few years, but she’s still a ferocious rim defender. Breland can make stops inside and outside. Interior defense is really going to fuel this team.

Nia Coffey

We should also see plenty of Nia Coffey this season.

Coffey brings some much-needed shooting to a Mercury squad that ranked 11th in the league in three-point field goal percentage last year. Coffey was a 37.9% three-point shooter for the Dream last year and was the only above-average shooter on that Atlanta team. She scored in the 78th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and no player in the WNBA scored more points per possession on guarded catch-and-shoot attempts.

We should see Coffey doing a lot of what she did last year: operating out on the perimeter. Her numbers weren’t great when she was asked to do other things — 26th percentile on dribble jumpers, 16th percentile on shots around the basket — but if the Mercury get her going as a pure shooter, Coffey should be able to deliver some strong results.

Bria Hartley

Of the team’s three other additions, Bria Hartley is the player most likely to contribute heavy minutes off the bench.

Phoenix enters 2020 with a starting backcourt of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, both of whom are among the league’s best guards when they’re at 100%. But Taurasi barely played in 2019 and Diggins-Smith missed the season after giving birth, so there’s really no guarantee we get both players at their best this year. Taurasi has a lot of wear on her tires. Diggins-Smith might need to shake some rust off. Don’t be surprised to see plenty of Hartley to give both starting guards a breather.

Hartley has played a lot of minutes over the past three years in New York, averaging at least 21.4 minutes per season. Early on, it looked like Hartley might be on her way to being a long term fixture with the Liberty, as she posted a 41.6/34.5/74.4 shooting split in 2017. But while Hartley’s usage went up each year in New York, her efficiency went down. By the time she hit free agency this year, it seemed like a foregone conclusion she wouldn’t be back in seafoam green.

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But one team letting a player go doesn’t mean that player isn’t good. Hartley’s still only 27, and moving to a full-time role as a third guard should get her usage rate down. Can that come with a corresponding rise in efficiency?

Hartley’s ability to function as a combo guard will also help the Mercury, because it allows them to use Hartley at both the point and the two. Provided we get both Taurasi and Diggins-Smith healthy and playing in 2020, Hartley allows them to run a tight backcourt rotation. That cohesiveness can be a big plus.

Later Additions: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kia Vaughn

Beyond those three, the Mercury added two more new players: Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kia Vaughn. I would anticipate smaller roles for the two of them than for the other three additions.

Walker-Kimbrough arriving in Phoenix was a surprise. On draft night, the team used the No. 10 pick on Virginia’s Jocelyn Willoughby. But Willoughby wasn’t a Mercury for long, as the team quickly traded her to the New York Liberty for Walker-Kimbrough.

Walker-Kimbrough has been in the WNBA for three years now, spending all of them in Washington. She never really became a huge piece for a deep Mystics team. But she is coming off a year in which she played a career-high 17.1 minutes per game and averaged 6.7 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 1.2 assists on 43.2% shooting.

There were a lot of encouraging signs from Walker-Kimbrough last year, including the fact that she scored in the 94th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Phoenix was already a good pick-and-roll team last year — they ranked second in PPP on ball handler possessions and fifth on roller possessions — but a good bit of that success was because of DeWanna Bonner. With Bonner gone, we can probably expect the Mercury to take a step back in pick-and-roll efficiency, but maybe Walker-Kimbrough can help prevent that from fully happening. She’s obviously not Bonner and won’t play the same role that Bonner did, but she brings something to the team that they lost with Bonner’s departure.

The downside to this addition is on the defensive side, as Walker-Kimbrough has posted a negative D-PIPM in each of her three seasons. But in the role she’s likely going to play — a fourth guard who gets irregular minutes — you look more at the positives than the negatives, and a +1.3 O-PIPM last season is a big positive.

And then there’s Vaughn. The veteran center didn’t play in 2019, but in 2018 she started 27 games for the Liberty. That season, Vaughn averaged 5.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game while shooting 53.3% from the field.

Vaughn’s been an above-average defender for almost her entire career, but she’s struggled to produce much offensively, limiting her overall upside. She’s posted an O-PIPM below -2.0 in six of her 10 WNBA campaigns, including two of her last three seasons. In 2018, she ranked in the 35th percentile on post ups. While she did a good job then of producing on putback attempts, it wasn’t enough to make her a positive offensive contributor.

Vaughn has said that she’s working to extend her shooting range to the short corner, but it remains to be seen how that development will play out on a WNBA court. For now, Vaughn feels like a good safety net for when the Mercury’s frontcourt gets into foul trouble, someone who can come into the game and help keep the Mercury’s defense at a similar level that it’s at with Griner and Breland in the game.

Overall, this team brought in a good mix of defensive bigs and offensive perimeter players. A team that was extremely young in 2019 now boasts a lot more veteran contributors for 2020. It remains to be seen how exactly all this talent winds up working together.But the Mercury have the potential to be significantly deeper this year, and if things fall the right way, they could be in for a strong 2020 season.

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