The second day of WNBA free agency started with the Phoenix Mercury dealing DeWanna Bonner, a key component to its championships in 2009 and 2014. As other teams built up, it left a question mark for the group with the league’s all-time scorer in the final seasons of her career.
Then on Wednesday they were involved in the second biggest move of a bonkers start to free agency. The Mercury announced they signed four-time all-star Skylar Diggins-Smith, a 5-foot-9 guard closing in on her own historic numbers.
— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) February 12, 2020
And that changes everything. Diggins-Smith was certainly heading somewhere — she was not willing to stay with the Dallas Wings, where she played all six seasons of her career — but the Mercury didn’t appear to be in that mix. Phoenix paid a hefty price, giving up three first-round picks that include Nos. 5 and 7 in 2020, but with it comes a similarly hefty question.
Has there been a larger big 3 than what the Mercury have now? Is this even the best roster in the 2020 WNBA?
What Diggins-Smith brings to the Mercury
Diggins-Smith, 29, did not play the 2019 season after giving birth to her son, Rowan. She returned last fall as one of the core eight committed to training with the U.S. national team ahead of the Olympics.
She has career averages of 15.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game. In 2018, she became the third player in WNBA history to average at least 17 points and six assists (17.9, career-high 6.2) to join Taurasi (2013) and the Los Angeles Sparks Candace Parker (2015). She’s ranked top-10 in scoring, assists and total steals in three different seasons.
And she’s on pace to eclipse 3,000 career points, 1,000 assists and 200 steals this summer. That would put her in the company of 18 others, including Taurasi. Diggins-Smith is currently at 2,670, 826, 225, respectively. At 168 games, she’d need to average at least 10.3 points and 5.5 assists to become the only player to reach the marks in 200 games or less.
Taurasi, heading into her 16th season, is arguably the GOAT of the WNBA with the stats to prove it, including that all-time league-best scoring record. Any one star player put next to her is a big win. For years that’s been Brittney Griner down low. Griner, a six-time all-star and two-time defensive player of the year in seven seasons, is the only true center to lead the league in scoring (2017, 2019). She holds multiple league block records and is the only player with at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots.
The three are also well acquainted with each other’s style of play. They’ve play on the USA national team together on-and-off since 2013. Diggins-Smith has not yet made an Olympic squad, but was a finalist in 2016.
Is it the best 3 in WNBA history? Comets take issue
Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith may end up being the best big 3 in WNBA history. They’re established veterans with strong numbers that will only help each other on the floor. All three rank in the top 17 of all-time WNBA leaders for points per game, per Basketball Reference.
Yet it’s preemptive to give them that distinction without any games — and yes, trophies — to their names as a collective. They are certainly the most well-known and popular big 3 of the WNBA. But the best?
To call them the best would overlook the OG Big 3 of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, who won four consecutive titles with the Houston Comets to open the WNBA in 1997. Cooper averaged 21.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.6 steals in her five-year career. Swoopes averaged 15.0 points over 12 seasons, but 18.2 in the final three years of the title runs with 5.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.6 steals. Thompson played an incredible 17-year career, averaging 15.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. They all rank in the top 20 in points per game, per Basketball Reference.
And while the dynasty Minnesota Lynx teams of the 2010s didn’t get “big 3” distinction, they were by far the best and most prolific full set of teammates in WNBA history. Seimone Augustus (11th), Lindsay Whalen (15th), Maya Moore (22nd) and Sylvia Fowles (17th), who joined them in 2015, are all top 25 in all-time points scored. Rebekkah Brunson is the only one not on the list, but does own the all-time rebound record with Fowles right behind her.
There’s a lot for this group to live up to with the Comets, though it’s fair to put it down as the first big 3 the modern era and a big win for the new collective bargaining agreement. The CBA set up larger salaries, more differentiation in that salary structure and different rules for the free agency period.
Free agency created star-studded rosters
One crushing reality of the WNBA peeked back out last May when reigning national player of the year Megan Gustafson was cut from the Wings roster (she was later brought back due to injury). That’s that there are only 144 spots in the WNBA, creating for multiple rosters boosting big time talent.
While none have the name recognition power that the Mercury now have, this free agency period — which is not over — has built up a lot of team’s rosters.
Phoenix is a title favorite. It’s not the only title favorite.
Kristi Toliver, a veteran point guard with two championships, left the Washington Mystics to join back with Candace Parker in Los Angeles. Chelsea Gray is becoming a standout player and they’re joined by Nneka Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike.
Bonner joined forces with the runner-up Connecticut Sun squad that re-signed Jonquel Jones, a dominant center who broke into the national lexicon last fall. Combine that with Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams.
Angel McCoughtry was the biggest signing of day 1 and joins Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson in Las Vegas. The Aces have four No. 1 draft picks.
And don’t count out the 2018 and 2019 WNBA champions. Seattle gets back Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, the 2018 MVP, after both missed the season due to injuries. The Mystics re-signed reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, and are expected to do so with finals MVP Emma Meesseman.
If Diggins-Smith’s addition to the Mercury roster makes them the best big 3 in the WNBA is yet to be seen. And there’s limited time to prove it given Taurasi is closer to the end of her career than the beginning. She dealt with back issues that kept her out for much of last season and can’t carry the load she once did.
They do boast the best big 3 in the 2020 WNBA, but even that could be by the slimmest of margins. We’ll all see come May.
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