In order for the WNBA to grow, it needs to be supported from every angle the NBA is, and while that’s easier said than done for certain financial considerations, testimonials like that of Deandre Ayton at Summer League minicamp Wednesday go a long way in proving the ultimate truth about the women’s league -- it’s an amazing, competitive league full of legendary athletes.
While the WNBA’s grappling match with nationwide renown is the subject of much debate -- how best to grow the league, who is best suited to cover it -- Phoenix has never had to worry much about putting forth a team people want to watch. For most of the league’s recent history, the Mercury have been a championship contender.
“I was like, freaking out… I was starstruck. I was speechless,” Ayton said following Wednesday’s practice.
As he told it, Diana Taurasi, the leading scorer and shooter in WNBA history and a 3-time champion in Phoenix, greeted him during a workout earlier in the week. Watching him recount the experience, one is legitimately reminded of their own first giddy, childlike experiences meeting famous athletes. For a young man who compared himself with Shaquille O’Neal multiple times throughout the draft process, so much adoration for Taurasi is remarkable.
But Ayton was giddy talking about his encounter with the sharpshooting Mercury guard, and rightly so. She belongs in the same conversation as Steve Nash, Randy Johnson and Kurt Warner -- Phoenix sporting legends who should never have to buy a drink in this city.
Yet she’s not talked about the same way, for reasons rooted in disgusting bias or simply a lack of wherewithal, depending on the person doing the talking.
To hear Ayton speak (and tweet) glowingly about the city’s biggest basketball star -- a comment Taurasi would humbly dismiss, by the way, because she’s as great a human as she is a player -- is representative of not only the mutual respect between both leagues, but of the place Phoenix holds within the greater basketball hierarchy, despite the recent tribulations of the Suns.
The Suns would do well to take heed of the Mercury’s supreme success over the past decade. The organization is about as classy and professional as it gets from top to bottom, and its priorities are bequeathed from its centerpiece, Taurasi.
That Ayton and Devin Booker are in proper awe of Taurasi and the Mercury shows they know great basketball and hard work when they see it.
It’s sometimes felt like the franchise has wandered without aim over the last eight seasons. If the compass for the Suns’ young stars is pointing straight up, where the Mercury have worked hard to get since Taurasi joined the team, it’s the firmest sense of direction they could have found.