With season over, where do Mercury go from here?

BY foxsports • September 29, 2013

PHOENIX -- Now that the unexpectedly reopened Mercury funhouse has closed for another season, we can step away and consider where its characters may go from here.

Well, Diana Taurasi will be flying to Europe for the winter, and rookie center Brittney Griner has a presumably big-paying gig in China.

Like almost all of the WNBA, the Mercury players will be working in professional leagues around the world. That makes offseason development -- or restoration -- tricky for an organization and especially difficult for a coach.

Will that coach be Russ Pennell, who -- as the interim replacement for Corey Gaines -- presided over a resurrection run that ended in the Western Conference finals? The seasonal benediction, by the way, was Sunday’s 72-65 loss to the Minnesota Lynx that included a 36.8 percent shooting performance capable of challenging the directional chutzpah of any sideline boss.

But with a WNBA resume that began during a playoff-saving 9-4 finish to the regular season, Pennell certainly seemed to have done enough to make a strong case for his return.

Well, that’s if he and the Mercury want to go in that direction.

“We really haven’t talked about anything beyond finishing out this season,” Mercury president Amber Cox said after the loss to the Lynx. “We’ll sit down with Robert Sarver, our owner, and we’ll get on the same page and see if he’s interested.”

The "he," of course, is Pennell.

With his attention funneled toward helping the Mercury advance in the playoffs, fielding public inquiries regarding this topic hasn’t exactly been on his short-term agenda.

And even though the former coach of the Grand Canyon University men’s team has grown roots in town and has two daughters going to school here, his WNBA return probably shouldn’t be considered automatic -- even if that’s where the Mercury decide to go.

“Now’s the proper time to do that,” Cox said of the team discussing its possible future with Pennell, “so we’ll address it over the next week or so.

“He did an outstanding job. I think he came in in a very difficult situation and basically with one day before his first game and just learning the players’ names. He did a fantastic job.”

It will be interesting to find out if it’s a job Pennell wants to stay in. But regardless of what happens, there’s little doubt he’s made the most of this opportunity and taken a little time to enjoy it.

“The quality of play at this level is incredible,” Pennell said when asked what he learned since joining the Mercury. “You watch on TV, but you really have no idea until you’re here and see it up close.”

Pennell also was impressed with the quality of people within the organization and the dedication of the players.

“It’s about winning,” Pennell said.

But as many of his coaching friends (he has established several close ties locally) would remind us, Pennell is about teaching. And even though the WNBA certainly isn’t exempt from that (at least after the players return from overseas), his history of working with young players suggests that returning to pro basketball might be far from a slam dunk.

Staying in Sunday’s moment, however, he was quick to embrace events of the last few weeks.

“I’m proud of where we came from,” Pennell said in regard to how the Mercury grew uncharacteristically crusty on defense and more focused on details. “I think we grew together pretty well.”

With bouncing between two professional leagues per year bumping up the career mileage on Taurasi, Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor (she missed this series with the pesky knee issues), Phoenix will need Griner to carry much more of the future load. Gaining that strength (literally and figuratively) while spending the next several months in China could be another challenge.

“She has got to get physically stronger,” Pennell said of Griner, who closed her first pro season with 10 rebounds and six points in the loss to the Lynx. “Right now, she doesn’t have the strength or brawn to hold her position or get to the spots on the floor we’re asking her to get to. She knows that.”

That said, Pennell has been impressed with how the highly anticipated new face of the league has handled her responsibilities.

“She’s been absolutely great with her attitude,” he said. “I think learning to deal with all that over a four-month period is a lot to ask.”

The big assist for that goes to Taurasi, who was reflective after bowing out Sunday.

“I’m proud of our group,” she said after going just 6 of 21 from the field in almost 39 minutes on the floor. “It was a strange year. It was a little weird. The story didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but I’m proud of everyone in that locker room ... they fought hard.

"When they made the coaching change, it could have easily just been a foregone season, but we stood with it, and I’m happy with the way we fought throughout the season."

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