The Phoenix Mercury are back on the practice floor getting ready for the 2011 season. The entire team was in camp on day one and thanks to Diana Taurasi's offseason troubles in Turkey, the Mercury return rested and ready.
"They're fresh, playing hard, can go longer. They're ready to play," Coach Corey Gaines said after Wednesday morning's workout.
The Mercury return their core group of players led by Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor who've both been in Phoenix resting and working out on their own for several months. The team brings back eight of their nine top players in minutes played and points scored from last season's team that lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Seattle Storm.
Tangela Smith was allowed to leave in free agency (she signed a two-year deal in Indiana) and to replace the three-point shooting forward, the Mercury brought in two veterans, center, Nakia Sanford and guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris.
The changes give the team depth up front and on the wing but more importantly opens up an opportunity for third-year player, DeWanna Bonner. Bonner won Sixth Woman of the Year in her first two seasons in the league and was second in Rookie of the Year voting.
Bonner is a unique talent with guard skills but the size (6-4) and aggressiveness to rebound and score in the paint. Bonner was the team's third-best rebounder and the Mercury's best shot-blocker. She can score off the dribble, she can work in the post, can defend four different positions, and according to Gaines, has improved her three-point shooting while playing overseas this winter.
With Smith gone, many assumed the Mercury would start All-Star forward Candice Dupree along with true center Kara Braxton. But when asked if that would be the starting front court, Gaines said, "Probably not."
Gaines wouldn't say who would be starting next to Dupree, but to keep the floor spacing needed for the deadly pick and rolls that either Taurasi or Taylor can run, he hinted at Bonner stepping up.
"We lost Tangela (Smith), mainly a three-point shooter, but DB is a skilled player. She's not a scrub."
No scrub indeed. Bonner (.358) actually shot better from three last season than Smith (.347) and is an upgrade in every other part of the game as well.
Gaines also hinted at other changes to the Mercury offense. They will still play fast but focus more on using aggressive ball pressure and solid defense to generate scoring opportunities. In the half court when Braxton and Dupree are on the floor together, the sets will change a bit as well.
"With two post players you may end up with more cross picks, high/low -- still spaced out. It's just a different philosophy of thinking about it. Flips it around," Gaines said about how his team will create space without four outside shooting threats on the floor.
We saw some of that last season after Braxton arrived in a mid-summer trade. But with a full training camp and Braxton's improved understanding and stamina, that part of the offensive execution should only improve.
"What we lost outside, we gained inside. Force, power, layups," Gaines explained.
The Phoenix Mercury will hold their media day on Monday, May 23. The 2011 WNBA season opens on June 4.