Last offseason, the Phoenix Mercury decided to send a message to Diana Taurasi: If you stick around, we’ll go all-in on these last two years.
And Phoenix did just that, trading the sixth pick in this year’s draft—along with next year’s pick—in exchange for Kia Nurse and Megan Walker. The logic was that adding a few veteran supporting pieces to their big three of Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner would give the Mercury a shot at title contention.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way as the Mercury sit in the middle of the pack with a 9-10 record, currently good for seventh place. However, Phoenix has a bit of momentum after a July 9 upset over the Seattle Storm and taking the Las Vegas Aces to overtime just two days earlier.
But the question remains whether or not there’s enough firepower to take some of the load off Phoenix’s big three, especially considering that Taurasi has battled injuries all season and Bria Hartley’s availability this season is unknown.
In order to answer that, we have to go back to the Nurse trade and see whether or not it was really worth it. Before we can determine if bringing Nurse on board was the right choice, there are a few pieces of context that need to be filled in to understand the calculus involved in pulling off this type of trade.
The Draft Picks
While there’s no guarantee that the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury would’ve picked the same player with the sixth pick in the 2021 draft, for the sake of analyzing the trade, I’m going to assume that Michaela Onyenwere is still the pick here. She and Rennia Davis are the only picks that would’ve made sense in this spot, and post-draft it seems that Onyenwere made a strong impression on a number of teams.
The challenge, of course, comes with projecting the Mercury’s pick in 2022 before the start of the next college basketball season and understanding who is draft eligible. Many figured next year’s draft to be significantly stronger than this year’s. However, name, image and likeness regulation throws a wrench into the strength of the upcoming draft. Many players who would’ve considered going pro are likely going to wait for the simple reason that NCAA women’s basketball is still more popular than the WNBA. Therefore, players have more to gain financially by staying at their university. That should leave players like Sedona Prince and Zia Cooke off the table. Prince and Cooke have two of the largest social media followings among all college basketball players, men and women. Given how few rotational spots—let alone roster spots—will be available until there’s expansion, it makes little sense for either player to leave any earlier than they have to when they’re bona fide superstars at their respective schools.
Assuming the current standings hold, Phoenix was once again set to have the sixth pick in the 2022 draft. The assumption is that the Mercury would either seek out a third guard (since in this scenario they have Onyenwere, not Nurse) or one of the many post players expected to be available in this draft. That leaves someone like Christyn Williams, Lexie Hull or Evina Westbrook as potential options on the guard side and a player like Nyara Sabally if they would want some post depth behind Brianna Turner.
In either scenario, they likely wouldn’t make much of a splash their rookie year and would probably play in the ballpark of 15 minutes per game during what will be Taurasi’s final year with the Mercury.
The Open Roster Spot
Acquiring Megan Walker pretty much solidified the Mercury’s rotation despite a competitive training camp. But if Megan Walker wasn’t involved in the trade, it would have opened up another roster spot.
The easy pick to fill that spot would be Cierra Burdick. The forward was one of the last players cut by Phoenix before management submitted the final roster, and she was the only one of the four players released on May 11 and 12 that had a realistic shot at making the roster. She also has veteran experience and would’ve served as a solid option at the back of the rotation.
Of course, there was no shortage of quality players who were cut by other teams around the same time, including Lexie Brown, Kristine Anigwe, Brittany Boyd-Jones and Kaela Davis. The Mercury also could’ve been a potential landing spot in any number of trades, including becoming the beneficiary of the Los Angeles Sparks’ decision to unload Sydney Wiese.
It’s impossible to know exactly which direction the Mercury would have gone with their open roster spot if the trade had not taken place, but it’s important to consider the options that were available to them when analyzing how the trade worked out.
Why Phoenix Had to Pull the Trigger
Going into the 2021 draft, Phoenix had a full understanding that this draft was not likely to bring an impact player onto their roster, and for the most part, that calculation was right. If the Mercury had any hope of competing with the Aces and Storms of the world, the choice to trade a draft pick for a proven player is a decision any general manager with hopes of contending would make 10 out of 10 times.
Of course, the only 2021 draft selection to make a meaningful impact this year has been Onyenwere. She is the runaway rookie of the year favorite and is identical to Nurse from a production and size perspective (both are 6’0”).
But there’s simply no guarantee that coach Sandy Brondello would’ve given her as much playing time as Onyenwere has gotten on the New York Liberty. When you consider the urgency that comes with trying to get the most out of Taurasi’s last few years, it would’ve been a challenge to justify starting a rookie—even one as talented as Onyenwere—with the expectation that she could get the Mercury to where they want to go. The more likely scenario would’ve been that Shey Peddy and Sophie Cunningham would see more playing time before Onyenwere would start for the Mercury.
Nurse, on the other hand, provides the Mercury with a body of work that shows she’s a proven scorer and can be an alternative ball handler to Diggins-Smith and Taurasi. Nurse’s ability to be a facilitator is especially important given how many games Taurasi has sat out thus far this season.
If Taurasi was healthy the entire season, there would be a more compelling case to consider Onyenwere as a better fit given her efficiency and ability to play inside. Onyenwere is scoring 1.6 points per 100 possessions more than Nurse this season and is shooting better from the field by 5.7 percent.
However, while there are many things Onyenwere is proving to do well this season, she’s not a natural ball handler or distributor. Nurse averages more assists per game (2.0) on her career than Onyenwere (0.7) and is shooting two percent better from the three-point line this season. She also has nearly an identical scoring average on the season to Onyenwere (9.7 compared to 9.8), and she just recently came off a big 28-point performance in Phoenix’s July 11 loss to the Storm.
Without Nurse, it would’ve been easier for opposing defenses to trap Diggins-Smith and clamp down on Griner. Given how much the Mercury have struggled with hitting open shots this season, they likely wouldn’t have even come close to the level of success they’re having this year if Nurse wasn’t on their roster. When Nurse’s shot is falling, Phoenix generally plays well. The Mercury are 4-1 this season when Nurse makes at least three shots from beyond the arc. That speaks to the importance of her role with the Mercury this year. Given the predicament Phoenix faced this season, Nurse has played a critical part in helping this team get to where they are.
Another reason the Mercury are better off with Nurse is due to her rebounding prowess. While the Mercury are eighth in the league in rebounding (even behind the Indiana Fever), Nurse is third on the team in rebounds per game (3.7). Without her, Phoenix would lose rebounding battles much more frequently than it already is. Despite being a guard, she knows exactly where to be on the floor and can crash the boards when neither Turner nor Griner are there.
Given that there is never a guarantee that Taurasi stays healthy, Nurse is a better option for the Mercury on the floor, even if she plays out of position at times. Not only does she provide needed insurance at the guard position, she also rebounds better and is a better game manager than Onyenwere.
In addition, Nurse serves the Mercury well long term. When Taurasi retires, Nurse could be featured prominently as an off-guard to play alongside Diggins-Smith, assuming she stays with the team. Without adding her to the team, the Mercury would’ve had to bank on one of the guards available in the 2022 draft to catch on quickly and keep them competitive. However, given how long it takes for prolific college guards to catch on in the WNBA, this is no sure thing. Instead, they have the benefit of knowing that they have a proven player in Nurse who is more than capable of filling in that role beyond Taurasi’s playing career.