All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith will miss the final two games of the regular season for personal reasons as the Phoenix Mercury continues to compete for one of the final two WNBA playoff spots.
The Mercury has suspended Diggins-Smith’s contract, backdated to Wednesday. The team said Thursday it plans to sign a replacement player in time for Friday’s game against Dallas. Phoenix closes the regular season against Chicago on Sunday.
Diggins-Smith, the team’s leader in scoring and assists this season, did not play in Saturday’s win over New York or Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota. She was listed as disabled with a non-COVID illness for the first game and for personal reasons for the second.
The Mercury (14-20) is level with Atlanta, Minnesota and New York, while Los Angeles (13-21) is also heading into Thursday’s games in the playoff race. The lone team already eliminated in the postseason is Indiana.
The Mercury announced Monday that veteran guard Diana Taurasi would miss the rest of the regular season with a quad trunk. The team said its playoff status would be updated if the Mercury made it into the postseason.
According to salary cap information provided by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith is signed to Phoenix until next season and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
“We found out before the game,” coach Vanessa Nygaard said of Diggins-Smith missing the final game. “We went through this before on Saturday. We’re only moving forward one day at a time. We’ve seen it all this year, so whatever is thrown at us, we’re ready to just strap them on and go.
“It is such an honor and a privilege to play this game and we are so blessed every day to get to go out and play for our amazing fans. So whoever we have available will come out and compete for our team “We’re still arguing and we’ll be ready to go. That’s what our fans deserve.”
It has been a very challenging season for the Mercury and freshman WNBA head coach. Nygaard replaced current New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who was let go by Phoenix after eight seasons while leading the Mercury to the 2014 WNBA title and WNBA finals last season.
Star center Brittney Griner was detained in Russia in February on drug charges as she returned to that country to finish her overseas season. Last week, Griner was sentenced in Russia to nine years in prison, while the US is still trying to get her home in a prisoner swap.
Diggins-Smith last played in a losing game in Connecticut on August 4, after Griner was sentenced earlier that day.
“This is a human being and our true friend and true sister,” said a distraught Diggins-Smith, who watched the sentencing along with her teammates, after that game. “I don’t expect everyone to care. But we really do.
“And we come here and we still have to play this [expletive] game. Nobody even wanted to play today. How do you approach the game with a clear mind, and the whole group is crying for the game? Because you’re trying to honor her and you’re trying to come out and play hard for her.”
In Phoenix’s fourth game of the season, May 17 in Las Vegas, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi got into an argument on the bench and had to be separated by teammates.
Then Taurasi didn’t make the July All-Star Game, while Diggins-Smith did. In comments to the media, Nygaard praised Diggins-Smith’s selection, but also said it couldn’t really be an All-Star Game without Taurasi.
On July 1, Diggins-Smith tweeted that Nygaard’s clip said that, and featured a clown emoji that appeared to be aimed at the coach.
Diggins-Smith deleted her Twitter account on Wednesday.
The Mercury also had a contract separation at the end of June from center Tina Charles, a former MVP who came to the team this year as a free agent. Charles then signed with rival Seattle.
In Wednesday’s defeat, 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 for this season not playing at all, gone from the team or currently offside, Phoenix had to depend on other players to fill bigger roles.
“I strongly believe that all the setbacks that are put on me as a person, as a coach in my development, it’s all for me,” said Nygaard. “This is something that will help me and make me better personally. I believe that for our team too. Challenges and things that come our way force us to try new things.
“I’m extremely proud to have coached this group tonight. That group that’s in the locker room, they’re a tough group and they’re so resilient. I don’t think anyone can imagine some of the challenges they’ve faced, but they never gave up. They never gave up.”
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