On the night of May 11, Vanessa Nygaard walked slowly into the Phoenix Mercury locker room, prepared to address the team after their 97-77 victory over the Seattle Storm. She was all business. Her head was down, having just accepted the game ball from her first victory as a head coach, and she motioned to huddle the team up. The Mercury players promptly began showering Nygaard with water from their water bottles, and cheers filled the small space in celebration of the moment. Nygaard stood motionless for a second before turning to the camera and giving a Jim Halpert–esque face, acknowledging the silliness of the situation while clearly being ready to move on to the business of preparing to meet the Storm again in their following game.
Win no. 1 in the books! 💦💦💦 pic.twitter.com/udfdBTdIXs
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) May 12, 2022
One week later, Nygaard found herself in the middle of a much different huddle with her team. With the Mercury facing off against the Aces for a second time this season, two of the biggest stars on the team, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi, got into such a heated argument on the sidelines that they needed to be separated.
Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi had to be separated after a heated exchange on the bench. pic.twitter.com/QGCghYuHAf
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2022
These two moments encapsulate the turbulence of Nygaard’s brief WNBA head coaching career thus far. She was named to the role on Jan. 24, 2022 after a search lasting more than a month. The days since she stepped into that job have been even more tumultuous. Nygaard has been tasked with leading a team that just fell short of a championship last year, replacing a long-tenured coach, leading a roster with many new faces, and navigating the fear and uncertainty surrounding Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia.
However, the ability to navigate through a variety of difficulties is the reason that Phoenix hired Nygaard in the first place. In an ESPN piece detailing the hiring process, Mercury GM Jim Pitman noted, “People that I talked to were just really high on how good of a relationship-builder and communicator she is. … That’s what really mattered to me.”
In interviews leading up to the season, Nygaard reflected those remarks by recounting how often she spoke to players about what they hoped to see this season. In one instance, she recalled asking Diana Taurasi, “What do you need from me?” Nygaard was then able to get instruction from the league’s all-time leading scorer to “tighten the screws,” referring to focusing in on the details that will get this team back to the WNBA Finals.
By these accounts, as well as her own, Vanessa embodies what it means to be a players’ coach. She believes that players at this professional level have the talent and capacity to operate somewhat on their own. In a press conference prior to the Mercury’s preseason game against the Seattle Storm, Nygaard explained, “I do want the players to have a lot of freedom. I don’t think players at this level need everything called for them.”
That freedom and trust extends beyond the court as well. When Taurasi put in a recommendation that former University of Arizona forward Sam Thomas get a camp invite, Nygaard had faith that the vet knew what she was talking about: “Diana’s the smartest basketball person I know. She can see things I definitely can’t see. … She was familiar with Sam and she’s right.” Thomas has gone on to make the Mercury roster and is currently the only rookie with the club.
While she likes to work collaboratively with her players, that’s not to say that Nygaard avoids pointing out areas of growth for her team. After the Mercury’s preseason loss to the Storm, Nygaard presented a clear critique in the post-game press conference: “We don’t move around enough when Tina [Charles] is in the post.” That comment proved to foreshadow the lack of movement and poor first-half shooting that contributed to the Mercury beginning their regular season on the wrong end of a 106-88 blowout to the Las Vegas Aces.
With Nygaard’s words from the preseason ringing true, the Mercury moved on from the opening loss and looked like a completely different team for a spell. Since the loss on May 6 up until their loss on May 17, they had the third highest offensive rating in the WNBA (according to WNBA.com). They also had the highest field goal and three-point percentages in the league in that same time frame. The head coach put it best after the Mercury’s first win: “We had a lot of offensive firepower.”
Impressively, Phoenix is creating this offensive explosion while its roster continues to change. The team started the year with a new face after adding last season’s leading scorer Tina Charles. In the absence of Brittney Griner at center, the Mercury signed Megan Gustafson just days before the season started, and they needed her to play substantial minutes in their first game. By game two, they welcomed Diamond DeShields, who was acquired during the offseason via trade, and they welcomed back defensive specialist Brianna Turner.
With the team just coming together five games into the season, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about what the current sample size says about Nygaard’s vision for this team. The Mercury are certainly throwing a lot against the wall offensively with Taurasi and Diggins-Smith sharing the ball-handling and facilitation responsibilities, and Phoenix is giving teams different post looks when Turner and Charles are on the floor together.
But Phoenix is not yet running like a well-oiled machine. The fact that players are still growing into their roles on this team and the everpresent stress of Griner’s detention are possible reasons for the sideline confrontation between Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. Nygaard offered as much in her post-game remarks, saying, “The players, they play hard; they play with passion. … There’s a lot going on. Our team has even more going on with the BG situation too. This isn’t something that goes away for us.”
The story about the tension between Diggins-Smith and Taurasi is also something that’s not going away. Skylar missed the Mercury’s most recent game against the Wings for what the team listed as a “non-COVID illness.” However, despite video footage of the team going through workouts in masks and Nygaard confirming that the illness had been going through the team, there continued to be speculation that Diggins-Smith missed the game due to personal reasons or team discipline that stemmed from the event.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact this kind of event has on a team, but it’s undoubtedly a test of Nygaard’s abilities as a new coach and one more thing to add to the list of issues on her plate. These moments of uncertainty are when a leader, especially a coach, relies on the foundation of the culture they built within their organization. In many ways, that cultural foundation for Phoenix is still being built by Nygaard and her staff.
The most salient aspect of the culture Nygaard is establishing for this franchise is trust. As she has taken the lead of a locker room full of veterans, most of whom were nearly WNBA champs last season, she has appeared to recognize and lean on their knowledge as Phoenix has begun its season. While Nygaard has plenty of experience in her own right as a player and coach, her openness to feedback appears to have made an impact on the Mercury. As Skylar Diggins-Smith put it in a preseason press conference, “It’s fresh. We’re learning a lot about each other. … It’s a lot of questions; it’s a lot of dialogue.”
The Phoenix organization is hoping that this dialogue leads to a lot of wins in 2022.