Skylar Diggins-Smith’s status uncertain as Phoenix Mercury fight for WNBA playoff spot

All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith’s status remains uncertain as Phoenix Mercury remains in contention for one of the last two WNBA playoff spots with two games remaining in the regular season.

Diggins-Smith, the team’s leader in goals and assists this season, did not play in Saturday’s win over New York and Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota. She was listed as absent for the first game with a non-COVID illness and the second for personal reasons.

The Mercury (14-20) are level with Atlanta, Minnesota and New York, while Los Angeles (13-21) are also in the playoff race before Thursday’s games. The only team already eliminated from the postseason is Indiana.

Phoenix’s remaining games are both at home, against Dallas (Friday) and Chicago (Sunday), who defeated the Mercury in the WNBA Finals last year.

The Mercury announced Monday that veteran guard Diana Taurasi would miss the remainder of the regular season with a quad stem. The team said their playoff status would be updated if the Mercury make it through the postseason.

Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard did not say if she expects Diggins-Smith to play for the Mercury again. According to salary cap information provided by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith is signed with Phoenix through next season and will be a full free agent in 2024.

“We found out before the game,” Nygaard said of Diggins-Smith missing the last game. “We went through that earlier on Saturday. We’re only advancing one day at a time. We’ve seen it all this year, so whatever’s thrown at us, we’re ready to just lace them up and go.

“It’s such an honor and privilege to play this game and we are so blessed every day to be able to go out and play in front of our amazing fans. Whoever we have available will come out and fight for our team. We’re still struggling and we’ll be ready to go. Our fans deserve it.”

It was a very challenging season for the Mercury and the freshman WNBA head coach. Nygaard replaced current New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who was fired by Phoenix after eight seasons while guiding the Mercury to the 2014 WNBA title and WNBA Finals last season.

Star center Brittney Griner was arrested in Russia on drug charges in February as she returned to that country to finish her season abroad. Last week, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia while the US is still working to bring her home as part of a prisoner swap.

Diggins-Smith last played in Connecticut in a loss on Aug. 4 after Griner was sentenced earlier that day.

“This is human and our real friend and real sister,” said a distraught Diggins-Smith, who watched the sentencing with her teammates, after that game. “I don’t expect everyone to give a damn. But we really do.

“And we’re coming out of here and we’re still supposed to be playing this [expletive] Game. Nobody wanted to play today at all. How to approach the game with a clear mind and the whole group is crying before the game? Because you’re trying to honor them and you’re trying to come out and still play hard for them.”

In Phoenix’s fourth game of the season, on May 17 in Las Vegas, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi got into an altercation on the bench and had to be separated by teammates.

Then Taurasi failed to make the July All-Star Game while Diggins-Smith did. In a statement to the media, Nygaard praised Diggins-Smith’s selection but said it couldn’t really be an All-Star Game without Taurasi.

On July 1, Diggins-Smith tweeted out the clip of Nygaard saying so and added a clown emoji, apparently aimed at the trainer.

The Mercury also had a contract divorce in late June from center Tina Charles, a former MVP who joined the team as a free agent this year. Charles then signed with rival Seattle.

In Wednesday’s loss, the Mercury were led by Sophie Cunningham (24 points), Shey Peddy (21) and Megan Gustafson (15). Those were career highlights for both Peddy and Gustafson. With so many of Mercury’s expected starters this season not playing at all, having left the team, or currently on hiatus, Phoenix has had to rely on other players to fill bigger roles.

“I firmly believe that whatever adversity is thrown at me as a person or as a coach in my development is everything to me,” Nygaard said. “It’s something that will help me and make me better personally. I think that also applies to our team. Challenges and things that come our way force us to try new things.

“I’m very proud to have coached this group tonight. This group that is in the locker room is a tough group and so resilient. I don’t think anyone can imagine some of the challenges they faced, but you never gave up. You never gave up.” Skylar Diggins-Smith’s status uncertain as Phoenix Mercury fight for WNBA playoff spot

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