PHOENIX – Although her WNBA playing and coaching career took her around the country, new Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard is no stranger to Arizona.
“Both of my parents are from Tucson,” said Nygaard, who was born in Scottsdale. “My dad went to UA and my mom went to Arizona State so that rivalry was always there.”
And the franchise’s 10th head coach is pretty familiar with the Mercury, too. She was an assistant coach for Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer last season when Phoenix defeated Vegas in the WNBA semifinals.
However, despite advancing to the WNBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky, the Mercury and coach Sandy Brondello mutually agreed to part ways, according to the club. Phoenix finished 19-13 in the regular season and was seeded fifth in the playoffs.
That wasn’t good enough for General Manager Jim Pitman to stand pat.
“We were close, but not quite good enough to win a title last year,” Pitman said. “We’re making sure we use every opportunity we can to win another title.”
The Mercury defeated the New York Liberty, Seattle Storm and the Aces before the Sky eliminated them, 3-1, in the championship round.
Brondello had a new job even before the Mercury found her replacement, landing as head coach of the Liberty. Meanwhile, Pitman considered dozens of candidates and concluded that Nygaard was the best fit.
“What stands out to me about Vanessa is her ability to build relationships, her ability to communicate and hold team players accountable,” Pitman said.
Holding players accountable came from Nygaard’s playing days at Stanford under coach Tara VanDerveer.
“Tara helped me so much in my life,” Nygaard said. “She taught me to have a great attitude and effort. There’s no excuse for not coming at that level.”
VanDerveer was ecstatic when she heard that Nygaard had accepted the Mercury job.
“I’m really excited for Vanessa as the Phoenix Mercury have made a great hire,” VanDerveer said in a statement to Cronkite News. “Players play hard for her because she has a high knowledge of the game and is able to keep it fun while holding everyone accountable.”
Nygaard’s coaches and colleagues believe in her ability, but it was one of her 9-year-old twins who offered some last-minute advice on the way to the airport to board a flight to Phoenix.
“You’re the shepherd,” Nygaard said he told her. “You go take care of the GOAT (Diana Taurasi).”
That acronym – GOAT for Greatest Of All Time – really does apply to Taurasi. As she returns for her 18th season, she is the league’s all-time leader in points (9,058) and a three-time WNBA champion.
With the Mercury opening the season in May, Nygaard hopes to develop a deeper relationship with Taurasi and her teammates.
“I’m looking forward to that engagement and getting to learn from the greatest player of all time,” Nygaard said.
And Nygaard will be happy to let other coaches try to deal with Mercury center Brittney Griner, who dominated the Aces in the playoffs.
“I tried for five games to figure out a way to try and slow her down and it did not happen,” Nygaard said of Griner, who averaged 21.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks during the Las Vegas series.
For Nygaard, it’s about developing a relationship with every player. And she believes her experience as a player can help.
“It’s important to be able to relate to these players, as a former player,” Nygaard said. “I know the struggles a player goes through. Love, time management, life. To be able to push them because you know what it’s like is an important skill that I bring.”
That relatability, along with her coaching acumen, put her at the top of the pedestal for an organization that conducted more than 20 interviews for the position.
Nygaard emerged with the job, and she’s eager to get started.
“The best way to be successful is to have great players,” Nygaard said. “There’s great players here.”