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Mercury midseason mailbag: Everything you want/need to know

Hayden Cilley Avatar
July 13, 2023

As the WNBA All-Star break is here, the Phoenix Mercury have been through the ringer. A 4-15 record isn’t appetizing, especially for the X-Factor, which is accustomed to winning. For our PHNX Diehards, I answered your questions about the Mercury at the halfway point as best as I could.

Questions from Discord:


I’ll discuss my elevator pitch first. To start, the WNBA only has 12 teams, making it very easy to follow quickly. A point I always mention is the phrase “quality over quantity.” Although there are only 144 players in the WNBA, that proves how much competition there is.

For example, it took Mercury center Megan Gustafson about three seasons to find a legitimate role in the league. The same can be said for Mercury guard Shey Peddy. Every team has one true superstar, regardless if they’re a rookie or veteran (yes, I’m talking about you, Aliyah Boston). Every player also has a story. It’s a dream to play in the WNBA, and the stories players have to get there are truly remarkable.

In terms of fundamental basketball, it is some of the best you can find. Teams like the Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty and Washington Mystics are connoisseurs of ball movement. They embody the details that so many people forget about when watching the game casually — ball movement, off-ball action, boxing out on a rebound, good shot contests, etc. The WNBA embodies the fundamentals of basketball and shows people how skilled and talented players really are.

How I’m doing (I love this question, thank you!)

I’m doing very well! I visited one of my best friends in New York last week and caught the Mercury and Liberty game in Barclays Center. It was his first WNBA game and despite being skeptical at first, he really enjoyed it. Two star-studded teams going at it in a competitive game; how can someone say no? It was an amazing experience.

Funny enough, my vacation to the east coast let me catch up on sleep. I mean, it was about 8-10 hours of sleep per night, something I haven’t gotten in forever. Relaxing and spending time with people you care about is one thing everybody needs to do.

I’ve been working two jobs and that’s definitely been an adjustment for a 20-year-old. So, I’ve learned to literally take everything one day at a time. Don’t focus so much on the future to where you can’t see what’s right in front of you. We can’t make more time, so it’s important to cherish the present moment.

In regards to drinking water, I need to do more of that with the temperature continuing to be 110 degrees Fahrenheit and above. I’m typically good about drinking water, but I need to start from the moment I wake up. I don’t want to get heat exhaustion (seriously, I’ve had it before and it sucks). Buy one of those Hydro Flasks from Home Goods (the big ones too). They should be less than $20 and you’ll thank me later.


A huge weakness still is defense. The advanced numbers paint a story of how bad it’s been. The Mercury have the worst defensive rating in the league (107.6). How is that acceptable? It’s not. Since Nikki Blue took over as interim head coach, that rating is 108.9 (ninth in the league). However, they did play Las Vegas and New York, two of the most high-octane offenses in the league.

I wish I could say there was a true redeeming quality about the team at this point, but I’ll find one. Her name is Michaela Onyenwere (and you might see a story about her from me soon). Since Blue became head coach, her role has changed and so has her performance… for the better. In July, Onyenwere has averaged 14.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 44 percent from the field. When the team looks out of it, she isn’t. Her athleticism, shot-creating and innate ability to score have propelled Phoenix to a higher offensive rating (97.5 in July, ninth in the league).

Untapped potential?

Honestly, Brianna Turner has the most potential for growth. A lot of the problem with her offensively was how she was being utilized. Breezy’s usage rate dropped in the 2022 and even 2023 season. Most of that was because Turner was forced to play center in the absence of Brittney Griner. Still, she was being mainly utilized as a screen-setter and a roller to the basket. She excels in that, but there’s so much more she can be doing.

For example, she’s a great passer out of the high post. The connection between her and Griner felt like it never left. Breezy is a phenominal cutter to the basket as well. When you have players like Diana Taurasi dishing the rock, it’s easy to get her good looks at the basket.

Another area I feel coach Blue will emphasize is her offensive game. Throughout warmups, she practices her jump shot and has taken a couple in games before. I’m sure the coaching staff will encourage some kind of range from Turner. Look at a player like Alyssa Thomas. She has a steady jumper from about free-throw range and it works. While her shot isn’t the prettiest, it still gets the job done. Even a 10-foot jumper would force defenses to respect Turner from outside of the paint.


I won’t lie, I do love these multi-part questions so I’ll answer this the best I can. I don’t believe that former Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard was totally responsible for the collapse. However, I believe that players gave up on her throughout the season.

One example was the constant switching of Brianna Turner and Michaela Onyenwere in and out of the starting lineup on a nightly basis. Nygaard didn’t use Turner in a very effective way on the offensive end. Breezy is a great passer and excellent cutter to the basket. She’s also starting to develop a free-throw jump shot. She isn’t just a screen-setter on the offensive end. It also developed an inconsistency with players, as her skill-set had to change depending on who she was playing with.

Since Blue took over as head coach, the numbers are on a different level, especially defensively. Turner is averaging 2.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in July. She’s done all of this while playing over 30 minutes in all but two games. The example with Breezy highlights a lack of appropriate usage with some players on the Mercury roster. 

Triple-double problem?

About the triple-doubles, I don’t think that has made a difference on Phoenix’s performance. I do want to acknowledge how amazing it is though. Players like Candice Parker, Sabrina Ionescu and Thomas continually break records. The talent in the league continues to increase and level up, season by season. I won’t go on too much about this, but it’s been amazing to watch.

Some people don’t like change, but this is the influx of talent and people wanting to play in the WNBA. Offenses are allowing for star players to shine and be so dominant. The beauty of the league is that, in my opinion, most players can get a triple-double. This is a league about skill and it is a skill to get a triple-double. Nonetheless, this hasn’t been a detriment for Phoenix, but it’s been more amazing to witness history every game.


That question is something I ask myself nearly every game. With the addition of Nikki Blue as head coach, I believe it will make Gustafson more valuable. People often forget she was the 2018-19 Naismith College Player of the Year. She’s a dominant double-double threat on a nightly basis. One of the problems with the WNBA (which I’ll get into later) is the lack of roster spots.

Players like Gustafson and Peddy (among others) go overseas for a shot to make it into the league. However with Gustafson, it’s strange. Her game can fit in any offense, especially teams that need a scoring punch. The defense is mostly why there’s a lack of minutes, in my opinion. Although Gustafson is a great post defender due to her strength, the mismatch on the perimeter is too prevalent to ignore.

Players like Breanna Stewart and DeWanna Bonner are bigs that operate mostly on the perimeter. Their quickness can be too much for Gustafson to keep up with at times. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Gustafson should start on a WNBA team. With the lack of roster spots and increased perimeter play, I’m not sure if she’ll get a prominent starting role.

In terms of rebounding, Phoenix has been awful as they’re dead-last with 30.1 per game. But the old saying “out with the old, in with new” applies here. In the month of July, the Mercury are middle of the pack with 33 per game (seventh). Most of the jump isn’t statistical information I can pull from the internet. It’s primarily due to a more increased effort. More people are boxing out defenders, going for loose balls and trying to get the rebound. I mentioned a statistic in an earlier article where Phoenix allowed the most second-chance points. That number has drastically changed for the better.

From Twitter


Ah yes, the question that is on everyone’s mind this season: Will Skylar Diggins-Smith return? I’m personally not too sure, but I feel it would be a safe bet to say she could. Everybody around the organization has stated the same exact thing: They can’t comment on it, or that she’s on maternity leave.

Three players in the WNBA made their debuts after their respective pregnancies in less than three months: Sheryl Swoopes, Candace Parker and Napheesa Collier. There is some extra motivation though for Diggins-Smith to make it back.

Her relationship with former head coach Vanessa Nygaard wasn’t always the sweetest. It anything, it was downright sour. Posting a clown emoji after Nygaard disregarded her All-Star appearance, arguments going into the locker room, the list goes on. Players have talked about the high level of respect for now interim for coach Blue. She has experience as a former player and top assistant coach at multiple universities. It would be a change of tone for the six-time All-Star.

Also, how could I forget that she would finally play with Griner? Diggins-Smith all through last season expressed her sentiments for her sister and how much she missed her. If anything, this could just be for her to play with BG before any unknown variables take place.

With that being said, the Mercury are 4-15. Although the team looks better with Blue, it may not be enticing for Diggins-Smith to come back, especially since she still gets paid this season due to the maternity leave clause in her contract. If anything, SDS can wait out this season and test the waters in free agency. She has yet to win a title and could look to go to a team that needs a player like her to get over the hump.


This is tough. Phoenix will face off against playoff-bound teams in 16 of the next 21 games. While change doesn’t happen overnight, it can happen over the course of a week. Coach Blue mentioned frequently how she hasn’t had the time to transition her offensive schemes into the lineup. Now with almost a week since Phoenix played, they can implement those tactics better.

Many of the intangibles are taken care of. Energy, effort and passion all seem to be there for the first time this season. Although the record hasn’t reflected that, the play certainly has. More players are involved offensively and have made a true effort to play team defense. With situations like these, I look at it like baby steps. Before a baby can walk, they first crawl. With Blue’s system, taking care of the intangibles is essential to making sure things move smoothly.

Crazier things have happened though. The Mercury started the season 2-9 in 2022 and made the playoffs. I’m not saying they will make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t rule it out. As the famous Sam Cooke said, “A Change Gonna Come.” Hopefully that change takes place right after the All-Star break.

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