Who are the 2014 Phoenix Mercury?
That does not matter.
What matters is who will the 2014 Phoenix Mercury become?
Two years ago the Phoenix Mercury came in with high hopes drafting point guard dynamo Samantha Prahalis to compliment Diana Taurasi in the back-court and make another championship run. Instead, Prahalis lasted a year in Phoenix and injuries rocked the team rolling them into uncharted territory; the top of the WNBA Draft Lottery.
Last year the circus came to town with rookie phenom Brittney Griner and the season ended in a better place than it started, but it was an overall inconsistent at best and a disappointing season at worst.
The common denominator for both of those seasons was premature hype.
It is not uncommon in a world of preseason polls, power rankings, and predictions that range from too early to laughable. Nobody other than the dot coms traffic benefit from these, but they still get written, and they still get read more than just about anything else. How often is the preseason No. 1 the last team standing in any sport at any level? Rare.
While the 2013 Mercury were dubbed "The Avengers" as a collection of great individual talents that would come together to form a great team and the 2012 Mercury were a team on the rise, the 2014 Mercury are, well, the 2014 Mercury.
No nicknames. No hype. No mention of the "C" word (Championship) until the team cuts down the nets.
It is easy to launch platitudes all over the internet with predictions and hype like a mascot holding a t-shirt gun during a timeout. Yeah this team has potentially the greatest player in WNBA history in Diana Taurasi, a dominant force in Brittney Griner, and three players that could run their own team if desired in DeWanna Bonner, Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree. Nearly every team out west has great players, multiple great players. They also have WNBA coaches, something Mercury have for the first time in seemingly in forever.
"I think they want to win," Coach Brondello on getting the stars to buy into the team. "That comes from the type of players that they are. They know that they have more success when they are involved with the players around them and they want to win. In the WNBA there are a lot of superstars and it is about making them gel. It takes time and we will get there. At least we have the core group together and we are just adding some new faces."
Those are the things that matter. Also, adding role players that fit in with the very top heavy talented roster like Erin Phillips and Shay Murphy.
New head coach Sandy Brondello has played in the WNBA at the highest levels with the Detroit Shock, Miami Sol, and the Seattle Storm. She has coached in the WNBA with the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Los Angeles Sparks in recent years. She has coached internationally with UMMC Ekaterinburg where she led the duo of Taurasi and Sue Bird to great success. She is a four time Olympian winning one bronze and two silver medals. Suffice to say she knows the game, the players, and everything in-between as a veteran of this game of nearly 30 years.
The Mercury's last two head coaches had a combined zero games played in the WNBA, Olympics, or international women's basketball. Neither Corey Gaines nor Russ Pennell, for as talented as they are as coaching minds, knew this game like Brondello does.
While this group needs to work out the kinks of a new system heavily oriented on defense they have Taurasi who has played for Brondello while Erin Phillips and Penny Taylor are both very familiar with her as Australian Nationals themselves.
"I think that is a big thing having coached Diana for the past two years in Russia," Coach Brondello on establishing chemistry as a coach.
"We have created great chemistry and she understands obviously how I want to play. She is a coach on the court and it kinda helps that transition. It is a smooth transition."
Brondello wants to mix in a polite amount of defensive structure into this team as the pieces are already in place for them to be a juggernaut on offense as they always are.
"It is all about playing hard," Coach Brondello continues on team defense. "Making every shot a contested shot on the defensive end and being a unit. For me it is not about being the greatest one-on-one, but we have to have a team behind them all. That is really important for me. Communication, activity behind the ball, and finishing plays."
The only WNBA Champion in the last five years to not rank in the Top 3 of Defense Points Allowed was, ironically, the Phoenix Mercury back in 2009. It is not common in this league that poor defensive teams win championships. Same for the NBA as six of the last 10 champions have been in the Top 3 in Defensive Points Allowed as well. All of which were in the Top 13 in that category as well. Brondello understands that outliers exist, but defense still wins championships.
"I want to run. I think that is entertaining," Coach Brondello said with a smile" We can actually create a lot of points by letting our defense create offense so that is how I play."
Scoring is not an issue. The Mercury can score the ball. In recent years the scoring has gone from prolific and overbearing for opponents, like the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000's, to a collection of buckets in an inefficient manner leading to losses. Like the late 2000's Phoenix Suns.
It is all about establishing chemistry.
For various reasons it was lost with Gaines. It was never really there with Pennell. Those teams in hindsight were not built well, not coached much better, and did not give themselves a chance against rising giants like the Minnesota Lynx and company across the league.
"We got a long way to go," Bonner on team chemistry after three games. "A lot of new people so it is going to take a minute, but starting out this way with a lot of new people I think we are right where need to be. We can only get better. It is kind of scary once we get our chemistry to see exactly where we will be."
That is pretty much a nail on the head there. It is not about where the team is in the pre-season, after a trade, the draft, or training camp. A team becomes who they will eventually be as the season progresses and chemistry either naturally happens or blows up in their collective faces.
Scars from the chemistry projects of recent years are finally healing and time will tell whether this new formula will mix together well now, in season, and into the playoffs for that unspeakable "C" Word. Championship.
Dragic will once again compete for the Slovenian national team in the world championship games this summer. What does the Suns' front office have to say about his decision?
This came as somewhat of a surprise, especially considering the amount of nagging injuries that plagued Gogi this season, and limited not only his minutes but also his effectiveness down the stretch.
In addition, Dragic initially indicated that he planned on simply resting and rehabbing this offseason, and wouldn't be playing competitively. However, after about a month he had a change of heart and announced his intentions to once again compete this summer.
So what do the Suns think about his decision?
Fortunately, our own Dave King was on top of it and was able to speak to Phoenix Suns team president Lon Babby about the matter.
Regarding Dragic Playing for the Slovenian National Team this summer:
Lon: "We try to accommodate him. I think, obviously you've got to be a little bit concerned that we want him to get enough rest. But it's so important to him and to his country, that if he wants to do it then we'll support him. We'll try to see if there are ways to mitigate the degree to which he is participating...we're working on some of that stuff now and we'll see how it turns out. But if Goran wants to play and feels that he owes it to his country to do that then we'll support him. All things being equal it would be better if he were resting all year, but that's not the way life works."
Dave: "Isn't that one of the things you like so much about Goran is how loyal he is?"
Lon: " Yeah, he's loyal and just loves to play and loves to work. It's very important to him...It's tremendously important to his country and to his fellow citizens, and I think he enjoys playing so we'll see if we can mitigate it a little bit so it's not quite as arduous."
In addition, Suns GM Ryan McDonough issued a statement about the matter during one of the recent Suns draft workouts as well.
"If he wants to play then we're happy for him to play...put it that way. He had the best year of his career last year, after having come right off the European championships. So, if that's what he feels like he has to do to get ready to play then we support him. It's a great honor to play for your country. We want to be strategic and selective about how many exhibition games he plays in, and his practice schedule to make sure his body is preserved for the year. But at the end of the day it's his call, and we support him 100%."
As is fairly evident from the quotes...the Suns front office would almost certainly prefer that he took the summer off in order to fully rest and recover. However, it is also obvious that they fully support his decision to play, and understand that his loyalty to his country and his team, and his drive to compete are the very same characteristics that make him such a special player here in Phoenix as well.
Is a confident combo guard with athleticism for days and a funny-looking shot a good fit for the Suns in the first round? Bro, do you even McDonough?
School: University of California - Los Angeles
Position: Shooting Guard
Data courtesy of Draft Express
Zach Lavine was arguably the most athletically gifted prospect at the NBA Draft Combine. He posted the best time in the lane agility drill, the 2nd best time in the shuttle run, the 3rd highest maximum vertical leap and 9th best 3/4 court sprint. There is no doubt he has the physical tools to run the court in the National Basketball League.
In college, that athleticism translated into a strong transition game. His speed makes him an effective leaker on fast breaks and his leaping ability allows him to finish well above the rim for a player his size.
All that speed and verticality comes with a price however. At 19, LaVine is still growing. All that punch is packed into a slight frame that will undoubtedly take loads of abuse among the grown-ass men of the NBA.
LaVine has an odd but effective shooting stroke. It reminds me of Shawn Marion in that it looks somewhat broken, yet LaVine's balls find the bucket (Phrasing!). He was a 49.4% 2-point shooter and 37.5% 3-point shooter in his only year at UCLA. His 3-point accuracy definitely has some question marks to it as he started the season blazing hot, but only made 6 of his last 31 3-point attempts. He's demonstrated great range, but will the real Zach LaVine please stand up?
His free throw shooting leaves a lot to be desired, as 69.1% is low for a guard, which is mitigated by the fact that he only got to the line 1.8 times per game. However, that is also low for a guard of his skillset. Perhaps due to his slight frame, perhaps due a lack of aggression, LaVine avoids contact like the plague. Goran Dragi? plays in a similar fashion, but even the Dragon doesn't have the hops or height of LaVine. One hopes that as he grows into his 6'5" frame, he also starts drawing some and-1s.
If any of these shooting numbers strike you as red flags, remember that Jeff Hornacek is a shooting wizard and one of the most fixable aspects of a young player's game.
LaVine played the vast majority of his minutes at shooting guard in college, but insists he is a point guard. At the NBA Draft Combine, he worked out with the point guards. In fact, once he got to the combine, he wasn't too shy about airing his frustrations with his usage at UCLA. So what do we know so far about the man would be a 1 in the NBA?
LaVine has a great handle and is capable of using his speed to take his man off the dribble. He did not do a lot of passing in college, averaging a meager 1.8 assists per game. Knowing that, it makes is 1.75 assist-to-turnover ratio a lot more palatable.
Unsurprisingly for such a young prospect, his decision-making leaves a little bit to be desired. He has the physical tools to be a nightmare on defense, but was not known for his prowess on that end of the floor. Despite fast hands and excellent lateral movement, he only averaged .9 steals per game.
Similarly, he has yet to display the passing acumen required of an NBA point guard. He was also prone to jacking up ill-advised shots and occasionally setting for long 2s. He described his college role as a "J.R. Smith type... a spark plug coming off the bench to provide instant offense" and he seems to have embraced that role a little too fully.
All this said, it's important to remember he will do a lot of maturing between now and when he finds himself in an NBA rotation. None of these flaws threaten to derail his fast track to the first round.
While not yet a physical specimen per se, Zach LaVine is definitely a physical wonder. He oozes the kind of upside that make general managers want to reach for and mold. And at the tender age of 19, he is definitely moldable. Furthermore, if you watch his interviews, he is saying all the right things and appears to be very coachable. Despite putting his college coach on blast, it's clear he played the game he was asked to play at UCLA and there's no reason to think he won't make the same effort at the next level.
That coachability will be key because oozing upside generally is synonymous with oozing rawness. Despite his shooting efficacy in the Pac-12, that stroke is U-G-L-Y. Also, if he aspires to being more than J.R. Smith (and he definitely does, repeatedly mentioning that he wants his game to combine the best aspects of Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Jamal Crawford), he will need to become at least a competent defender and an above average passer.
Rajon Rondo and Archie Goodwin were both raw guards with incredible athleticism and less than incredible shooting strokes. They were also both Ryan McDonough draft picks. Will Zach LaVine join those two as the Phoenix Suns' general manager plans his second draft in Phoenix? He certainly has a type.
With a pair of athletically gifted combo guards already manning the 1 and 2 in Phoenix and whippersnapper Archie Goodwin waiting in the wings, I think LaVine's chances of landing in Phoenix are unlikely. After the Suns' success last season, it stands to reason that another project on the roster might be asking for more patience than this team has right now.
There is no doubt that Zach LaVine is hot prospect who, with the right mentoring and development, could end up being an elite NBA scorer a la Monta Ellis. He could very well be off the board by the time the Suns pick at 14 but might be a nice get at 18. If the Suns do draft him, I have a feeling he'll spend a lot more time in Bakersfield than he does in Phoenix.