The WNBA season is in full swing and the teams of Arizona’s alumnae are polar opposites. Aari McDonald and the Atlanta Dream are 4-2 after finishing last season 8-24. Meanwhile, Sam Thomas is on a team that finished 19-13 and went to the WNBA Finals in 2021. In the early going, the Phoenix Mercury are 2-4 and having public drama between their stars.
Aari McDonald and the Atlanta Dream
The Dream played two games in the third week of action. Aari McDonald’s best showing was against the Indiana Fever on May 17. The Dream blew out the Fever 101-79 and McDonald had a significant impact.
The diminutive point guard led the team with six rebounds. This should be no surprise to Arizona fans. McDonald was the second-leading rebounder for the Wildcats all three years she played in Tucson.
After two games in double figures the week before, McDonald scored nine on 4-of-9 shooting but only connected on one of her six 3-pointers in Tuesday’s game. Her six rebounds and nine points were combined with four assists and a steal.
There are a lot of positives in McDonald’s second season, but she is still getting used to the speed of the professional game after getting erratic minutes during her rookie year. That can be seen in her ball control.
She continues to have issues with turnovers. Against the Fever, she matched her four assists with four giveaways. All-in-all, it gave her one of the lower plus-minus (+7) on the team in her 28.5 minutes on the floor.
Game two wasn’t a great one for either McDonald or the Dream. It wasn’t her worst of the season, but she didn’t shine as much as she has in recent outings. The second-year pro played just over 20 minutes and once again had problems connecting from distance, missing all three of the 3-point shots she took against the Washington Mystics.
The 1-for-9 performance from outside last week wasn’t great, but McDonald is still shooting well from 3-point distance in the young season. She has raised her 3-point field goal percentage to 36 percent in the early going. Last year, she shot 30.8 percent from outside.
She has also raised her attempts from outside. McDonald is hitting 1.5 of 4.2 3PA this season. Last year, she took just 3.5 and hit 1.1 of those.
The Dream have two games in week four. They will travel to play the Washington Mystics on Tues., May 24 in their second straight game against the D.C. team.
The one Arizona fans will mark on their calendar is Sun., May 29. McDonald and the Dream will return to Atlanta to host Sam Thomas’ Phoenix Mercury.
Sam Thomas and the Phoenix Mercury
Thomas joined a team that had just been to the WNBA Finals but was in a state of change. Despite advancing to the cusp of a title, the Phoenix Mercury fired long-time coach Sandy Brondello and her staff (including Arizona alumna Julie Hairgrove) after last season. They brought in first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard who was definitely an outside-the-box hire.
Nygaard had five years experience as a college assistant and two years of experience as a WNBA assistant. Her only head-coaching experience was for Winward School, a private high school in the Los Angeles area that has 625 students attending 7th through 12th grades. She went directly from coaching high school to coaching a WNBA team with big personalities.
It was an extremely successful high school program, and Nygaard said that it was the only place willing to give her the chance to run her own program. Still, it was a big jump from a small high school to one of the most successful WNBA franchises in league history.
The change may have helped Thomas get her spot on the roster. Nygaard and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes have known each other since their high school playing days. Thomas made a good impression on Nygaard that ultimately led to an extremely rare roster spot for an undrafted rookie.
During her introductory press conference, Phoenix general Manager Jim Pitman stressed several times that he brought in Nygaard because he felt she would bring “accountability” to the organization. Why he felt they needed that was open to question, but Phoenix-area radio station Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reported that Mercury star Diana Taurasi told Nygaard that she needed to “help us tighten the screws.”
Nygaard has been tasked with integrating high-profile off-season signings like Tina Charles with established Mercury stars like Taurasi. She also has to work around the arrest and ongoing detention of Brittney Griner in Russia. And now that the season is underway, it looks like Phoenix is still having lapses of accountability and screw-tightening.
On May 17, Taurasi and fellow star Skylar Diggins-Smith got into a heated difference of opinions on the sidelines. At the time, the team led the Las Vegas Aces by six points. They went on to lose by 12.
Diggins-Smith has not played since. She has been out for the past two games for what the Mercury’s injury reports call “Non-COVID Illness.” Nygaard has simply said that the altercation was a typical thing that sometimes happens between competitive people.
On the court, the Mercury went 0-3 last week. In addition to the Tuesday-night loss to the Aces, they lost to the Dallas Wings by 10 and closed out the week with 100-80 loss that gave Vegas the season series between the two teams.
Thomas returned to her adopted hometown of Las Vegas twice over the week. It was the high point of a difficult week, but difficult weeks are to be expected. It’s not like Thomas did not play for a college team that won just six games her freshman season.
Ahead of tonight's game against the @PhoenixMercury & the @LVAces, Las Vegas native @s_thomas14 shares what it means to be playing on the @WNBA stage in her hometown. @centennialgbb pic.twitter.com/5f837WwqIL— Tina Nguyen (@ttinanguyen) May 17, 2022
Thomas played around 90 seconds in each of the early-week games. In the Saturday, May 21 game, she got just under six minutes of play and notched her first WNBA block.
Like her former Arizona teammate, Thomas is learning what being a professional is about. The challenges might be different than they are in college, but everything has its challenges.
For the team, the challenges are the games in front of them. Week four includes two road games. On Wed., May 25, the Mercury travel to Los Angels to play the Sparks. Then, on Sun., May 29, it’s the first big matchup for Arizona fans: Phoenix at Atlanta.