Mercury adjusting to life without Taurasi as training camp opens

Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello (middle) leads her teams through practice at US Airways Center.

PHOENIX — Almost every repeat champion will tell you it’s harder the second time around. For the 2015 Phoenix Mercury, the degree of difficulty may be even greater than for most defending titleholders.

The 2014 WNBA champions began training camp this week without their longtime leader, point guard Diana Taurasi, who is sitting out the 2015 WNBA season to rest up for her winter season with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League.

To boot, All-Star center Brittney Griner will also miss the first seven games of the season. She was suspended last week after police arrested her and now-wife Glory Johnson of the Tulsa Shock on charges of assault in a domestic dispute earlier this month. The WNBA also suspended Johnson for seven games.

Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello considers Taurasi the best player in the world, and that’s hard to argue, given her track record. The seven-time All-Star has been a top player in the WNBA for more than a decade.

"While disappointing, I think it’s the right thing for Diana Taurasi as a basketball player, and it’ll definitely extend her career," Brondello said. "So we’ll look forward to having her back next year."

Taurasi is still under contract with the Mercury and has said she expects to return in 2016. But for the 2015 squad, the question is: Who will lead this team?

Forward Candice Dupree, a three-time All-Star, said she is ready to step into a larger leadership role to maintain the team’s success.

"I do think we’ve got a target on our back considering we won the championship last year," she said. "I think teams are going to look to try and beat us because we are missing players. But we’ve just got to go out there and play hard and rely on our defense like we did last year."

Forward DeWanna Bonner hopes opponents let their guard down against the Mercury, viewing them as a weakened team.

Griner accepts 7-game suspension

"Hopefully they come in there with that mentality and, you know, play us kind of soft. That’d be great for us," Bonner said.

Brondello has told Dupree and Bonner that they will need to become stronger leaders for the Mercury. She said the two players are viewing it as a challenge, and she could see them already stepping forward in training camp.

"This is their team now. They take ownership for that," Brondello said. "They’re leaders in their own right, but when you have the best player in the world on your team, leading your team, you kind of don’t really need to. But they can and they do it on their overseas team, and I’ve no doubt that they’ll do it for this team well."

Griner declared her belief in her teammates to overcome both her short-term absence and Taurasi’s season-long leave.

"I don’t think that’s too deep of a hole for this team to dig out of. I’m not going to say we’re in a hole, either," Griner said. "I’m not going to take away from anybody that’s on that court. You know, we rally together."

Bonner echoed Griner’s sentiments, acknowledging the challenge ahead for the team.

"We’ve got a lot of talent," Bonner said. "It’s going to be a little different feel, but I think we’re going to have a couple surprises for people this year."

Phoenix is also missing forward Penny Taylor, who has played for the Mercury the last nine seasons, averaging double-digit points in all but one.

Taylor’s future is uncertain as she’s currently unsigned. Brondello said Taylor has taken some personal time away from the game after losing her father late last year. The head coach believes the 13-year pro would not consider playing for any WNBA team other than Phoenix.

One new face on the team is forward Monique Currie, who is heading into her 11th year in the WNBA. She signed with Phoenix after playing the last seven years in Washington.

"Don’t underestimate her. She can be a star in this league — she has been," Brondello said. "I think she’ll be a great addition to our team, the way we want to play."

Brondello also singled out new additions Noelle Quinn and Leilani Mitchell, both guards, as important parts of a roster she believes is deeper than last year’s championship team.