It’s never easy when one of your team leaders goes down. It’s especially difficult when that leader is Diana Taurasi.
The news of Taurasi’s month-long absence due to her fractured sternum instantly left the Phoenix Mercury without their natural floor general and shot creator for a minimum of nine games, including four Commissioner’s Cup games.
The Mercury certainly aren’t expecting any single player to replace Taurasi. Rather, coach Sandy Brondello knows that it’s going to take a team effort to make up for the scoring, playmaking and leadership she provides.
However, the return of center Kia Vaughn and improved play from Kia Nurse are keeping the Mercury competitive while Taurasi recovers. Here’s a look at what each player offers:
Nurse Settles Into Mercury Offense
While WNBA Twitter is still buzzing over Nurse’s Eurostep followed by her last-second shot against the Chicago Sky, Nurse’s potential was never lost on the Mercury. Phoenix mortgaged its immediate future this offseason by trading the sixth 2021 draft pick and next year’s first round pick to the New York Liberty in exchange for Nurse and Megan Walker.
In doing so, the Mercury chose to put all their eggs in the win-now basket and get talent with proven WNBA experience rather than roll the dice on a player who might not be ready right away. Of course, nobody would have imagined that pick would turn into the Rookie of the Year favorite, Michaela Onyenwere. But Nurse has fit in seamlessly with the Mercury offense, averaging 11.8 points per game.
Given that Taurasi turns 39 next week, Phoenix needed another big guard that already understood the WNBA game and could take some of the pressure off their star player. After becoming a de facto leader to the youthful Liberty in the bubble, Nurse proved she could be a solid contributor on a veteran team.
“When she’s not thinking and she’s playing her game, she’s an all-star,” guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “I love her aggressiveness and she’s picking up her defense as well.”
Nurse showed flashes of potential during a closed scrimmage against the Seattle Storm on May 8 when she led the Mercury in scoring with 12 points, but she struggled to get going in the first few games of the regular season.
However, when Taurasi went down, Nurse answered the call to step up. In the last three games, she’s averaged 17.6 points per game. It’s the type of showing that the Mercury had in mind when they traded for her.
“Kia is our third scorer now and we hope to get her some better looks,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.
In both games against the Sky and the Dallas Wings, Nurse took advantage of three-point shots where she had open looks due to the defense collapsing on Griner in the paint.
Nurse should continue to receive those opportunities in the next few weeks with upcoming series against the Wings and the Los Angeles Sparks on the horizon. Both teams are likely to give Griner plenty of attention and give Nurse additional open looks.
Vaughn Provides Veteran Leadership
One of the biggest needs for the Mercury early in the season was getting more size. While Griner is dominant inside, Phoenix struggled against teams with a strong interior presence. Vaughn is a veteran leader who can make the right plays and help teammates get open.
“She’s an experienced player and has a high IQ,” Brondello said.
In addition to providing playmaking, Vaughn has also made a difference on the glass. In the center’s first three games, she’s added four rebounds per game.
Prior to her return, the Mercury relied on post players Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner as their primary rebounding sources. As a result, they were near the bottom of the league. But with Vaughn in the mix, the Mercury combined for 150 rebounds through her four games and are second in the league dating back to Vaughn’s return.
“I’m just trying to get back into game shape,” Vaughn said. “Overall, I’m just trying to do exactly what I did last year and be myself.”
It’s not just the rebounding that’s improved with Vaughn on the floor. The focused inside play has allowed Griner to play to her strengths. Prior to Vaughn’s return, Griner missed close shots inside without having another post player to draw opposing bigs away from the basket. However, with Vaughn on the court, Griner is scoring more often and with greater efficiency. Since Vaughn’s return, Griner is averaging 21 points per game on 69.2 percent shooting.
What makes Vaughn valuable to the Mercury is less about her stats and more about the intangibles she provides. Whether it’s boxing out post players, setting the right screen or helping her team get second-chance points, Vaughn’s impact has been immeasurable since returning to the Mercury.
Phoenix will have plenty of time to continue working Nurse and Vaughn into the offense before it resumes play with a two-game series against the Wings on June 9. The Mercury recently defeated Dallas 89-85 in Texas. In search of another favorable result matching up against the Wings, the Mercury will need Nurse and Vaughn to continue their impressive play.