COVID-19 pandemic forces Mercury to cut players without seeing them

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who joined the Phoenix Mercury in the offseason, is ready to get the WNBA season started. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Mercury had a deadline.

By June 1, the team had to cut its roster to 12 to ensure players would receive paychecks despite the suspension of the season.

It did, one of many surreal scenarios faced by a league that was supposed to start May 24 but saw its season stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. WNBA teams also had to cut players without seeing them and address a variety of issues including insurance.

On May 26, the Mercury announced they had waived Te’a Cooper, Stella Johnson, Olivia Epoupa and Sara Blicavs.

The league will start paying its players their salaries now that rosters are down. Players who were cut will still be offered health insurance until the end of June.

“It’s like a roller coaster,” said Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who was recently acquired by the Mercury from the defending champion Washington Mystics.

She called it a confusing and difficult time, and said that she felt for players who were cut and not really given a shot.

“The hardest part is those final cuts,” coach Sandy Brondello said.

Two of the Mercury’s roster cuts, Cooper and Johnson, were 2020 WNBA draft picks and weren’t able to participate in training camp before they were released.

“This one was especially difficult because we never got to see the players we were hoping to evaluate during training camp,” Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said.

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The other two roster cuts, Epoupa and Blicavs, were international athletes who had received training camp invites. Both of them have played professionally overseas.

Cooper, the Mercury’s second-round pick, was a two-time All-Big 12 selection from Baylor. Johnson led the NCAA in scoring with 24.8 points per game at Ryder.

“It’s a process,” Walker-Kimbrough said. “Everyone’s journey/process looks different.”

With the roster set and the players receiving paychecks, the team sounds ready to get back on the court.

Walker-Kimbrough said she was excited to join the Mercury in the offseason and that she could add to the team’s talent pool around Diana Taurasi and the “best big in the league” Brittney Griner.

“We feel good about the team we named,” Brondello said. “We have good versatility.”

The Mercury also added Skylar Diggins-Smith in one of the biggest moves of the offseason.

“Now it’s all about getting together,” Brondello said.

Expectations are high for the Mercury, as they wait to see if their season is shortened, delayed or even canceled.

“This is completely uncharted territory for us,” Pitman said.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Zachary Spiecker, an Arizona native, works as a digital sports reporter.