WNBA

Kia Nurse: New beginning with star-studded Phoenix Mercury spells title aspirations and expectations

With 6.1 seconds remaining in the single-elimination Second Round of the 2020 WNBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury trailed the Minnesota Lynx by one point.

After two missed free throws by the Lynx, Diana Taurasi grabbed the rebound and found Skylar Diggins-Smith, who, after a few moves in the open floor, couldn't connect on a tough double-clutch 3-pointer that would have sent Phoenix to the Semifinals.

Just like that, the Mercury's time in the Wubble was over.

"What's done is done," Taurasi told reporters following the loss. "We fell short."

Falling short is largely unfamiliar territory for Taurasi, a three-time champion that is 14-2 in winner-take-all playoff games over the course of her 16-year WNBA career. So, in February, after Taurasi signed a two-year supermax to stay with Phoenix, the franchise made a big splash to see to it that it wouldn't fall short again in 2021.

Nine days after signing Taurasi, the Mercury traded the No. 6 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft to the New York Liberty in exchange for Kia Nurse, Canada's rising star that already has one All-Star selection to her name, as she earned the honour in 2019, her second WNBA season.

Rather than using a top pick to take a talented player that would need time to adjust to the next level, Phoenix made the win-now move to acquire an accomplished player in Nurse, adding even more star power to an already star-studded roster.

Just between Nurse, Taurasi (9x), Diggins-Smith (4x) and Brittney Griner (6x), the Mercury have a combined 20 All-Star appearances.

That's star power.

After three seasons of failing to qualify for the postseason with the Liberty, Nurse is now a part of a title contender in 2021.

The 25-year-old is relishing the new beginning, which comes with an opportunity to reunite with a former Liberty teammate in Bria Hartley and learn from Taurasi, who many consider to be the greatest player of all time.

"She's the G.O.A.T. for a reason," Nurse told the New York Daily News of Taurasi in February.

Taurasi, who will turn 39 this season, averaged 18.7 points over 19 games in 2020 and is the WNBA's all-time scoring leader with nearly 9,000 career points.

Nurse, who is averaging 11.6 points per game through the first three seasons of her career, continued to speak on the Taurasi effect, adding that "I think there's a lot of intricacies of the game that you can only get from the experience and being who she is both on and off the court… So there's a lot I can learn there and I'm pumped for that."

Statistically speaking, the 2020 season was a down year for Nurse, who suffered an ankle injury in the season opener and was thrust into an even larger offensive role once the Liberty lost 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu for the season just three games in.

Still, despite the adversity and dip in efficiency, Nurse finished the season averaging 12.2 points per game, thanks largely in part to her ability to get to the line.

Nurse (103), Taurasi (113) and Diggins-Smith (100) were three of just eight players that attempted 100 or more free throws in last year's shortened season. Add in Griner, who was on pace to attempt over 80 free throws for the season before leaving the Wubble for personal reasons, and the 2021 Mercury are a team that should live at the line.

And once Hartley returns from the torn ACL she suffered last season, Phoenix will have five legitimate double-figure scoring threats, a headache for opposing defences across the league.

Those same defences that could solely key in on Nurse last season will have their hands full with the Mercury's offensive firepower, meaning the sharpshooter will have plenty of opportunities to get going for a Phoenix team that finished second in the league in made 3s per game last season.

"I think I can shoot it, I'm pretty sure I can, I've got the confidence I can do it," says Nurse, who finished sixth in the league in made 3s during her All-Star campaign.

With the best professional team around her to date, it's safe to expect yet another breakout season with big numbers to come.

It all begins on Friday, May 14, when the new-look Mercury open the season with a visit to the Target Center to take on the Lynx in a playoff rematch.

They'll see to it that they don't fall short this time around.

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