By Jeff Metcalfe
Vanessa Nygaard was never going to ease into her first season as a WNBA head coach.
Hired in late January 2022, Nygaard inherited a Phoenix Mercury team coming off a WNBA runner-up finish with three U.S. Tokyo Olympians gold medalists that added a fourth in early February by signing Tina Charles, 2021 WNBA scoring leader.
The perceived super team never came to be.
Less than two weeks after the Charles’ signing, Mercury center Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia on drug possession charges. She would not be released from custody until Dec. 8, missing all of a 2022 season that became the most tumultuous in the WNBA’s 26-year existence.
“It was meant to be me I guess,” says Nygaard, who previously had not been a head coach above the high school level. “I didn’t sleep very well most of that year just because there were so many things in my head. I’m grateful I had those challenges. Everything is something you can learn from.”
Beyond Griner, Nygaard navigated a contract separation in late June with Charles and strained relationship with Skylar Diggins-Smith presumed at the time to be a reason for her departure in August (she announced she was pregnant in October). Plus numerous injuries including to Kia Nurse who never made it back from an ACL tear in the 2021 playoffs and Shey Peddy (Achilles tendon rupture) in the 2022 postseason. The Mercury signed more than 30 players to fill an 11-player roster over a 36-game regular season.
Mercury general manager Jim Pitman could have endlessly interviewed Nygaard and never have hit on the right questions for what she faced in her rookie season.
“There is zero chance that you can plan for all of the distractions and situations that happened during the last 12 months,” Pitman said. “To Vanessa’s credit, she hung in there. We had so many things that just didn’t go our way last year. To still be able to make the playoffs, I was pretty proud of that accomplishment.”
Somewhat miraculously, the Mercury reached the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season even with a less than glittering 15-21 record. Diggins-Smith was instrumental, making All-WNBA first team.
It’s a modest accomplishment for a franchise with three championships and reached the playoffs final four from 2013-18 then the WNBA Finals in 2021. Still in context of unprecedented scrutiny based on international attention regarding Griner alone, extending their league best current playoff streak even given a two-game exit to eventual champion Las Vegas is a valid consolation prize.
“With a team that had been in the Finals the year before, that didn’t feel like what as a group collectively, myself included, we wanted to accomplish,” Nygaard said. “But I’m proud of the work and the effort and especially where we were at the very end before we had some injuries but also how those players fought to the very end. That was rewarding.”
Answering call supporting Brittney Griner
Nygaard took all of a week off in late August before beginning planning for a 2023 season that at the time did not include Griner, sentenced earlier in that month to nine years in a Russian prison for drug smuggling.
“There’s an endless amount of work to do to plan and she wasn’t free,” Nygaard said. “We were constantly getting updates and hearing bits and pieces. It never felt like from my side she’s coming home tomorrow.”
Tomorrow finally arrived in December when Griner was released via a prisoner exchange negotiated by the U.S. and Russia. Nygaard was up early that morning to help with her daughter’s pre-school basketball practice.
“I was as shocked as anyone that morning that it happened. I just couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. It’s just a miracle she is back. We didn’t think that was going to happen and it was such a strain.”
Not only for Nygaard but the Mercury and most WNBA players, who were activists on behalf of her release throughout her nine-month incarceration.
Evaluating Nygaard’s coaching was difficult, Pitman acknowledges, because of the constantly shifting roster that at times required 6-1 Sophie Cunningham to play power forward. But in regard to being a face of the Mercury regarding Griner, Nygaard “handled that about as well as anybody could.”
“It would have been a challenge for anyone. She answered the call every day. That’s something I was really proud of her for, how she went about that. She was an advocate (for Griner). That’s one the things the Mercury have always been, and I thought she represented herself and our franchise very well.”
“You don’t get any teachings about how to handle a hostage situation anywhere in your schooling or in your real-life work. You’re learning on the job every day about things you never expected to have to deal with. I thought she represented herself and our franchise very well.”
Tara VanDerveer, whose 1,186 wins are the most in women’s college basketball history, is going into her 38th season at Stanford and 45th overall as a head coach in 2023-24.
Nygaard played for VanDerveer from 1994-98 including on three NCAA Final Four teams and welcomes her advice to this day. VanDerveer, former Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne and former WNBA coach Dan Hughes were outside voices that Nygaard leaned on during a season arguably more difficult in totality than any of the veterans faced.
“It was a challenge no doubt,” VanDerveer said. “But what a great hire she was. Not very many people could have handled it the way she did. Vanessa is very intelligent, very hard working. She’s incredibly talented and a really special person. She’s a problem solver. It was a challenge no doubt. Just think when they get everyone healthy and have everyone back how good they’re going to be.”
Turner Thorne, with the second most wins in Pac-12 history, also played at Stanford for VanDerveer. She retired from ASU after the 2021-22 season, just as Nygaard was beginning her first Mercury season, and her son Quinn was on the Mercury scout team.
“I would watch and take notes and tell her what I saw, throw out suggestions,” during training camp, Turner Thorne said. As the season progressed and Nygaard’s needs changed, her support became more motivational.
“She was very professional and handled it really well in particular with the media,” Turner Thorne said. “I don’t know how much she internalized it and didn’t sleep at night. She genuinely cares. You could see when she spoke about it, it wasn’t lip service or disingenuous, and she hadn’t even coached Brittney Griner before.”
“This is bigger than basketball, and she knew it. She kept bringing attention to it. As a first-year head coach, that’s pretty impressive because you can just be totally in the weeds trying to manage the players you actually had on your roster. To make the playoffs with everything they had was a testament to Vanessa’s resiliency and ability to manage the adversity.”
Turner Thorne was in her 11th season (of 25) at ASU and 14th as a head coach in 2006-07 when she faced her greatest crucible. While ASU was in the Virgin Islands for a Thanksgiving tournament, the 15-year-old brother of forward Aubree Johnson died of what was later found to be an enlarged heart. Jordan Johnson was at that tournament with his parents. Aubree’s father Tom Johnson then died in a motorcycle crash in April 2007.
“That whole experience made me a better coach from then on,” Turner Thorne says. “I like to think I did a pretty good job of (handling) it, but talk about referencing it for the rest of my career in terms of giving yourself over to the greater good and not making things about you,” something ASU did that season to reach the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight for the first time.
For Nygaard, applying what she learned last season begins with carefully integrating Griner back into basketball after her life-altering experience.
Better coach with Griner back
“Sorry,” Griner told Nygaard when they finally met in person.
Not for 2022 but for the Mercury beating the Las Vegas Aces in a heated 2021 WNBA playoff five-game semifinal series. Nygaard was an Aces assistant coach that season.
“I kind of made a joke about that,” Griner said Thursday in her first press conference since her release. “I’m a jokester. I used humor throughout this whole experience. It’s been great getting to know her as a person. I’m really looking forward to being coached by her.”
Griner was second in 2021 WNBA Most Valuable Player voting behind Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, now with New York. The 6-9 center was “absolutely unstoppable,” Nygaard says, and returns to a WNBA now without 6-6 Sylvia Fowles (retired) and 6-8 Liz Cambage (currently not playing). That leaves Dallas’ 6-7 Teaira McCowan and New York’s 6-10 Han Xu as those able to match up size-wise with Griner.
“We have the best center in the galaxy as far as I know,” Nygaard says. “There’s (defensive) schemes but then a scheme will open up something else for us. I’m excited to have her in there rebounding because we definitely struggled with that last year (11th out of 12 teams). Just her energy and leadership is vital for us.”
Everyone cautions against expecting too much, too soon in a WNBA record 40-game season beginning May 19 (training camp opened Sunday). Griner says doing a basic plank exercise was difficult upon her return but that she “would have much rather been doing a 2-a-day (practices) dying than be where I was.”
Griner can be a unifying force for the Mercury. From reuniting with Diana Taurasi for a ninth WNBA season together (they also were teammates in Russia and on two U.S. Olympic teams) to recreating a potent post combination with Brianna Turner to keeping the locker room loose and cohesive, she will help Nygaard to be a better coach.
“She really grew in her ability to manage games and manage rotations,” Pitman says. “That can only be beneficial as we move forward because she’s seen a lot of adversity and had to deal with it. I’m looking forward to seeing where that growth comes.”
“I don’t think there is any question that she’s way further ahead than where she was a year ago. I’ve been really proud of the amount of time she’s put in in the offseason to really develop herself as a coach, working on the things she knew she needed to improve on.”
Staff support grows in 2023
From owner Mat Ishbia to the front office, assistant coaching staff, support staff and roster, much is new for the Mercury this season.
There are 10 new staff members in all, some in newly created jobs to keep up with what other WNBA teams are doing. Those include Monica Wright Rogers as assistant general manager plus Tully Bevilaqua and Taja Edwards as Nygaard’s assistants along with returning Nikki Blue.
Ishbia formally took ownership control of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury in February and almost never fails to mention both teams on every appropriate occasion.
“That’s been the message since the very beginning with him,” Nygaard says. “He’s told me anything I need, we are going to make the Mercury the elite franchise. We already are, but we are going to continue elevate ourselves to be the premier franchise in the W.”
“We have some things nobody else has being a location you might want to be in the winter, great place to live, great support staff to support you throughout the offseason. That’s a huge advantage as less players (Griner now included) want to go overseas so Mat’s fully committed. He’s been super supportive of me, giving me thumbs up on different projects I want to do that weren’t possible before.”
With Diggins-Smith on maternity leave perhaps for the entire season, the Mercury signed six-year veteran point guard Moriah Jefferson as a free agent. In a four-team trade partially designed to create salary cap space, they obtained forward Michaela Onyenwere (2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year) while giving up Diamond DeShields to Dallas.
Eight or nine roster spots seem locked up going into training camp so camp will be about determining the final few keepers and building cohesion with Griner back in place as a safety net at both ends of the court.
“We have expectations with this group,” Pitman says. “We expect our team chemistry will be way better because we don’t have a lot of the adversity we faced.”
The chief chemist, 48-year-old Arizona native Nygaard, still must prove she was the right hire to replace Sandy Brondello, now coaching New York and stuck with a super team label after additions of Breanna Stewart, Jones and Courtney Vandersloot. Defending champion Las Vegas added Candace Parker and also is billed as a 2023 super team.
“In January last year, we looked pretty great too,” Nygaard says of hype about the Liberty and Aces. “We play the games. I’m happy with the players we have on our roster. We’re going to work to be our best.”
“With all that strain, I also don’t feel I was totally able to really coach as myself in a lot of ways. So I’m looking forward to having a little more of a footing this year.”