PHOENIX — During a busy coaching spin around this state that began in 1998, Russ Pennell has worked as an assistant in the Arizona State men’s program.
Coaching little kids, medium kids and a few elite-level big kids, he also presided over a successful skills academy in the East Valley.
As an interim coach at the University of Arizona, he steered the Wildcats into the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and himself into a job leading Grand Canyon toward a jump to Division I in men’s hoops.
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Now, as interim head coach of the WNBA’s Mercury, Pennell’s message of fundamental focus has helped a team that had lost 11 of 21 games go 4-1 on the start of his watch.
During this quick turnaround, Pennell has attempted to make profoundly simple changes.
“We needed to do a little better on the little things to become a complete team,” said Pennell, whose team will meet the Seattle Storm on Friday night at U.S. Airways Center.
The well-chronicled, first point of emphasis was getting better defensively. Although sturdy defensive resistance has been anathema (even during the halcyon days) to pro hoops in Phoenix, the Mercury already have accomplished a few dramatic spikes in efficiency.
Pennell said the buy-in wasn’t difficult to achieve.
“When the change was made,” said Pennell, who took over for Corey Gaines, “I think the team knew they had to defend better.”
But how did players who weren’t exactly snarling on defense for the Phoenix portion of their WNBA careers perform such feats as holding the Tulsa Shock to four points in one quarter? Well, Pennell took a look at his personnel and knew each player had the capacity to defend.
“Look at our roster,” he said. “Everyone played at a (college) program where defense was mandated. Diana Taurasi … you can’t play for Geno Auriemma (Connecticut) and not defend. Alexis Hornbuckle … you can’t play for Pat Summitt (Tennessee) and not defend.”
And if you want to play for Russ Pennell, we recommend getting in a stance.
“With this team’s athletic ability and their length,” Pennell said, “defense should be a strength.”
Pennell, by the way, also lifted the emphasis on the companion category of rebounding … with noticeable success.
The offense, it should be noted, wasn’t much of a concern.
“I pretty much left the offense alone,” he said. “I liked what was being done. For this team, scoring isn’t a problem.”
Coaching Taurasi, despite her fondness for Gaines, a coach with whom she shared two WNBA championship runs, hasn’t been a problem, either.
When asked to define coaching the superstar guard, Pennell only needed one word.
OK, so he had a few more.
“Our relationship has been very, very good,” Pennell, who met with Taurasi and forward Penny Taylor shortly after he was hired, said. “Our goals are the same. Our philosophies are the same. Our mind-set was the same.
“I told her we needed her leadership.”
Let’s get back to that “awesome” part. In these parts, we’re pretty familiar with Taurasi’s level of skill and on-court passion. But Pennell, a coach’s son who’s been around basketball — at various levels — a while now, had a pretty remarkable assessment of his leader.
“I’ve never met anyone in my entire life who competes the way she does,” said Pennell, who played with Scottie Pippen. “Before when I watched her, I wondered if it (competitive fire) was about her or if it was about the team. I can tell you that with her, it’s all about the team and winning.”
The new coach also has been impressed with how rookie center Brittney Griner is handling the anticipated avalanche of attention … and the disappointment from observers who expected her to come right in and dominate the league.
“Some People don’t realize she’s only been out of college a few months,” Pennell said before pointing out that most WNBA players arrive for duty immediately after working abroad in extremely competitive pro leagues. “She’s also playing against really good players and players that are a lot closer to her size.”
He also said injuries have sidetracked the 6-foot-8 Griner in terms of that all-important continuity.
“The sky’s the limit for her,” Pennell said.
If the defensive continuity jibes with their overall ability to make buckets, the Mercury could be sky high and rolling into the playoffs.
For now, Pennell continues to sweat the details and lean upon the abundant skills of his players.
“It’s kind of what I expected,” he said of coaching in the WNBA. “These are high-end athletes. They know what they’re doing.”
And with Pennell seeking balance at both ends of the floor, they also are more committed to what they’re supposed to be doing.