The Mercury's Russ Pennell: How an interim coach succeeds

These are the tiring days of summer, when any Suns action is limited to whomever remains in the EuroBasket tournament. Phoenix’s season ended five months ago, and even when there is a season, pretty professional basketball hasn’t been a thing in the Valley for a few years now.

Don’t tell that to the Phoenix Mercury.

And don’t tell that to interim coach Russ Pennell, whose rebuilding project has the Mercury a Saturday playoff victory away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals in the WNBA playoffs.

The Suns are coming off a similar season that ended with an interim head coach, but due to different set of circumstances, they ended the year in a much different spot. Lindsey Hunter put in a very similar record to his predecessor, Alvin Gentry, but with a relatively less talented roster than Pennell’s Mercury squad, Hunter failed to improve his team.

Pennell has established himself as one of the state’s most well-traveled coaches – only he hasn’t traveled all that much. An assistant on ASU’s coaching staff from 1998-2006 and then filling in as an interim at Arizona in 2008-09, Pennell found himself at Grand Canyon University before joining the Mercury midway through an up-and-down year.

I caught up with Pennell a day after his team took Game 1 against the Los Angeles Sparks, and we talked about his success in turning around teams at a college and pro level, the Mercury and how rookie Brittney Griner is dealing with her fame.

Getting the job

Like the Suns last season, the Mercury fired their head coach midway through the year. The difference between Alvin Gentry and Corey Gaines was that Gentry was well below .500, where Gaines left Phoenix with a 10-11 record. The Mercury had the talent, but they weren’t playing up to the expectations.

A day after the Mercury lost to Seattle on Aug. 6, Pennell, who had been taking time off since being let go from Grand Canyon, took a phone call. His reputation preceded him – little did he know it’d be about a job offer.

“It came down in just a few hours,” Pennell said. “There was nothing behind the scenes we were working on. I got a call on a Wednesday afternoon, about 3 o’clock, interviewed that evening and they offered me the position.”

Finding the issues

How could a team with a No. 1 pick in Brittney Griner and one of the league’s best players and former MVP, Diana Taurasi, be playing .500 ball?

Pennell quickly determined through watching film that the defense was the issue.

“Phoenix has always been a up-tempo, run-and-gun team,” Pennell said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, it’s worked. They’ve won two championships doing it. I think the personnel maybe is a little different that what it’s had in the past.”

It was also about understanding the pulse of the locker room. Pennell said there wasn’t any one disruption other than the Mercury’s psyche – they knew they were better than the record indicated.

“The biggest thing this team was going through is they knew they were better than they were playing. And they were frustrated by it. It was causing them to fracture a little bit, not necessarily from within or not even with Coach Gaines, it wasn’t that. It was just a feeling where they knew they weren’t quite living up to what they were doing.”

How to gain trust

Pennell had been here before, which maybe explains why the Mercury finished 9-4 under his guidance to make the playoffs.

At Arizona, the sudden leave by head coach Lute Olson led to Pennell taking over a team in shock. Despite two NBA players on the roster – Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill – the Wildcats struggled early on. Pennell remembers a painful loss to Alabama Birmingham in the preseason NIT tournament being the turning point before the Wildcats snuck into the NCAA tournament as an No. 12 seed and rolled to the Sweet 16, where they lost to Louisville and soon-to-be Suns draft pick Earl Clark.

“Both the UofA and the Mercury have had track records of success. They’ve both been very good. From that standpoint, what I’ve tried to do – and I learned a lot at UofA – you make subtle changes and some things you think can help some, but you don’t go overhauling it. You don’t go in and make yourself the focal point,” Pennell said.

That angle – one far away from the philosophical rebuild that Hunter used with the Suns last year – has been successful for Pennell in two unique situations.

“As I told the ladies when I got the Mercury job, ‘I’m the one at the learning curve here, not you guys.’ I’ve got to be real careful not to change too much to make me feel better,” he added. “Then you have 11 people who are confused. I think it’s better the other way.”

The game ahead

Taurasi scored 30 points and the Mercury dropped Los Angeles 86-75 on Thursday. Behind the effort was that successful defense, which held the Sparks to 0-for-14 shooting from three-point range.

“Game 1 on the road, that was awful big,” Pennell said. “All we’ve done is put ourselves in position to try to get it done tomorrow night. It’s not going to be easy.”

The Sparks will visit U.S. Airways Center Saturday at 7 p.m. MST, and they’ll be eliminated from the Western Conference semifinals if they lose Game 2 of the three-game series.

“Both of us have mismatches,” Pennell said. “We have trouble guarding Candace Parker in the open floor. She’s like a point forward, you know, she brings the ball down and can do some great things. Our size bothers them a little bit. You know, so I think it’s a deal where we both have some advantages and maybe we have a few more. That’s where we have to capitalize, especially at home tomorrow night.”

And 1

  • Pennell on Brittney Griner’s growth: “Brittney’s really working at being detailed. I think the game has always come easy to her. She had great success at Baylor. She’s been very, very coachable, open to suggestions. My assistant, Anthony Boone … as a former post player himself, has really given a lot of knowledge and wisdom to her.”The thing with Brittney is too much is expected of her too early. I think we have to let her grow into this superstar so to speak. She’s 6-foot-8, she’s one of the most recognizable female athletes on the planet, but she also is having a learning curve to professional basketball. Like last night, it was interesting because she only played 18 minutes because of foul trouble. At first glance you’ll think she had a bad game. Well she had 10 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. You double that up and she had a monster game. Sometimes I think the expectations aren’t real fair to her.”

    “She’s phenomenal at (handling the fame), almost to the fault. I told her the other day that one of the things that she’s going to have to learn in the next year or so is how to say, ‘No.’ Because people will wear her out. She’s so gracious with her time. I’ve watched her at airports, restaurants, just walking through a hotel – she never ever turns anyone down for an autograph. And I know she’s dead tired and might want to be left alone. I think she embraces that part of who she is with grace and dignity. I think that’s fantastic. What I hope though, is that it doesn’t take away from being a great player. I know with all the personal appearances, all the things she does, she’s had to cut time in the weight room down, she doesn’t get to work on her game quite as much. I think we all understand that, being the No. 1 pick, being the young face of the WNBA. At some point, we’re going to have to let her get on her game.”

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