Diana Taurasi and the road to 10,000 points

Diana Taurasi June 18th 2017
June 18th 2017 @ Los Angeles Sparks

When Diana Taurasi elevated to the WNBA career scoring leader, surpassing Tina Thompson’s 7,488 points on Father’s Day 2017, the path to 10,000 seemed clear and wide.

“She is going to blow that record out of the water,” Thompson said of Taurasi, who was 35 and newly wed to former teammate Penny Taylor, now in the Women’s Basketball and FIBA Halls of Fame.

Then life intervened.

Taurasi played in only six games in 2019 primarily due because of back surgery and a combined 35 (of 54) in 2020 and ’21 because of the pandemic-season shortening and further injury. So instead of four years, it’s taken six for Taurasi – now a mother of two children including 5-year-old son Leo — is on the verge of 10,000.

Not that Taurasi is pining for any individual accomplishment at 41, in her 19th WNBA season. It’s always been about passion and championships, playing on 20 major title teams from NCAA to Olympic levels since 2002.

Taylor says her wife hates birthday hoopla (Taurasi’s most recent was June 11) and similarly “could care less” about the 10,000-point milestone. “For me it just reiterates that she hit a path of her own. She’s led by example and pushed this league to be better, more professional, more competitive, more committed.

“She’s never wanted the attention nor the accolades. That’s a beautiful thing in this day and age. I will give it to her every day because I think she deserves it, but the fact she does it for that pure love of what the game should be is pretty special.”

The 10K celebration is coming whether Taurasi welcomes it or not and another when she retires like what her best friend and former college teammate Sue Bird received last summer after her final WNBA season.

There’s a bunch of elements to it I won’t give away, but there is a celebration in the works, Mercury president Vince Kozar says. “She’ll hate every second of it, and I absolutely don’t care.”

Diana Taurasi with Team USA July 30th 2021
July 30th 2021 with Team USA

The standard for women’s basketball comparison

Taurasi made news in June by lobbying for women’s basketball players to be compared to other women and not men.

“I hear (Iowa’s) Caitlin Clark is like Stephen Curry” on a women’s broadcast, she said. “Well why can’t she be like Katie Smith. (LSU’s) Angel Reese rebounds like Dennis Rodman. Well why can’t she be like Rebekkah Brunson. That’s just a lack of education and research.”

But when it comes to Taurasi herself, where’s the women’s precedent? It’s near impossible to find given her accomplishments and that in 2024 – she’s under contract for another season – Taurasi will have played in a record 20 of the WNBA’s 28 seasons (Bird is the only other player with 19).

U.S. women’s pro leagues before the WNBA were short-lived: WBL from 1978-81 and American Basketball League from 1996-98. Smith scored a combined 7,885 points in the ABL/WNBA; Thompson’s 7,488 were all in the WNBA. Taurasi at 10,000 and counting is 21-25 percent higher than either of those Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers.

Taurasi was 15 when the WNBA launched in 1997, 22 when she joined the Mercury as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004 and 39 when she won fan voting for WNBA greatest player in 2021, the league’s silver anniversary season.

“I hear her when she’s talking about who someone reminds you of and the styles that they play,” Kozar says of the female-to-female comparison. “But in terms of accomplishments, accolades and milestones, who are we supposed to compare her to? There’s no one.”

Mercury general manager Jim Pitman concurs. “She has set the bar for everyone else to be compared. That’s who everyone else should be striving to be is Diana Taurasi. As a player on the court, she is second to none with her skill level and her basketball IQ is as good as any basketball player man or woman in my mind that’s ever played.”

Diana Taurasi Early Years in WNBA
Early professional years

Westhead flipped her scoring switch

Taurasi left Connecticut as a two-time national Player of the Year and three-time NCAA champion but not necessarily as a would-be prolific pro scorer.

“That wasn’t I don’t think the biggest part of my game,” says Taurasi, who averaged 15 points for the Huskies from 2000-04. “I didn’t score big numbers. I’d do it kind of when it needed to be done, but that wasn’t my mindset.”

Anna DeForge remembers Taurasi as her Mercury rookie teammate in 2004.

“It was such an exciting time for the WNBA and also a pivotal time when she came into the league. She just brought so much adoration, energy and eyes on our league. I know it was her rookie year and there was a lot of unfamiliar things, but Diana was an amazing teammate. As a player, that’s one of the top compliments you get.

“Everybody wanted to see Diana Taurasi play then to see her handle it like it was nothing. She relishes in hard, challenging moments. You knew she was going to have a lasting impact.”

Taurasi was WNBA Rookie of the Year and averaged 16.5 points in her first two seasons. Then the offensive light switch turned on with the hiring of Paul Westhead as Mercury head coach.

Westhead came to women’s basketball already famed for his NCAA scoring-leading men’s teams at Loyola Marymount and with an NBA title coaching the early Showtime Los Angeles Lakers in 1979-80.

“When coach Westhead got to Phoenix, at the time Penny, Cappie (Pondexter) and I were young,” Taurasi says. “He just unlocked this ferocious, naïve sense of playing with aggression, which I loved. I always keep it inside me somewhere. If you look at people that won the (WNBA) championship in the last 10-12 years, he unlocked small ball and shooting a lot of threes.”

Taurasi’s scoring average blew up to a still career best 25.3 in 2006. She remained above 20 ppg for four of the next five seasons even after Westhead departed following a 2007 WNBA championship, returning to the NBA as an assistant. New coach Corey Gaines continued playing Westhead’s style, and Taurasi also was valued for scoring on her Russian team.

By 2011, with two WNBA titles and a league Most Valuable Player award (2009), Taurasi had cemented her reputation as a scorer and 3-point sniper.

“She’s so unselfish, sometimes to a fault,” Taylor says. “She passes up her own shots to get the best shot. Within his (Westhead) system, she found ways it was easier to get her own shot because it was such free flowing and fast pace. She found it easier to be open in that style of play. It was so hard to guard because we had so many offensive threats. At every position, everyone found their ease of offense.”

Even after her offensive blossoming, Taurasi only crossed the 5,000-point mark in 2011. If she thought about 10,000 at all then, it was only in the abstract. The road to that reality was distant and filled with unimaginable twists.

Diana Taurasi 2014 Playoffs Game 2
2014 Playoffs Game 2 (right)

More than 8,000-plus points outside WNBA

Taurasi played just eight WNBA games in 2012 because of a hip injury.

In 2015, she sat out an entire Mercury season in favor of a big payday for playing only in Russia, allowing her a break from year-round basketball cycle women must play to maximize their income.

In between, the Mercury won a third championship in eight years with a dominant 2014 team that went 29-5, still the most wins in league history although that could change soon with a now 40-game regular season. When the second WNBA player reaches 10,000 points, games played analysis will be required too.

Taurasi has played the second most regular season games in WNBA history, more than 500, behind Bird (580). She and Brittney Griner are coming up on 200 regular-season games as Mercury teammates plus 39 in the playoffs and more as USA Basketball teammates and for three seasons with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia.

While the WNBA 10,000 standalone record is a marvel, consider that since college Taurasi has scored more than 8,000 additional points overseas or with USA Basketball.

“Something about Dee that’s always stood out to me is how she’s always going, always going hard every possession, she never wants to sit out,” Griner says. “As much as we want her to rest sometimes, she’s like no, she’s going to be on that court. You can see the hunger in her eye.

“For her to do what she’s still doing right now, it’s amazing.”

Griner, 32, is fifth in WNBA active player career scoring with fewer than 5,000 points in her 10th season (she missed all of 2022 while incarcerated in Russia). The 6-9 center would need to average 20 points for the rest of this season and at least six more to reach 10,000. Her current career average is 17.8.

“I need to start shooting some more threes and making them,” Griner jokes.

“Some people try to discredit it with if you play that long, you should. There’s plenty of people that played a long time and they’re nowhere near 10,000 points. You can’t say that. All the big shots, tough shots. I’m not shocked she’s going to get it this year. It’s another huge amount on a great legacy that she is still currently writing.”

Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma
Diana Taurasi and Geno Auriemma (left) Diana’s 40th Birthday (right)

Auriemma: Taurasi playing at 41 anything but ceremonial

Geno Auriemma checked the box score from July 5 then sent a text to Breanna Stewart, congratulating his former Connecticut star on a 43-point, 12-rebound double-double against the Mercury.

“You were pretty rough on the old guys last night,” he wrote.

Stewart’s reply: “We had our hands full.”

Taurasi put up 23 points (tying her season high), 5 rebounds and 7 assists, nearly leading the Mercury from 20 points down in the third quarter to a road win over one of this season’s WNBA super teams.

Stewart at 28 is in her prime. She is well on her way to a sixth consecutive season scoring among the top five and passed 4,000 career points on June 27 in her 196th WNBA game, one fewer than Taurasi when she reached 4K in 2009.

Can Stewart, who missed all of 2019 due to injury, make it to 10,000? Yes would be the almost unanimous answer, but only after another 8-10 highly productive seasons.

“Forget age for a minute,” Auriemma says. “Who’s able to do what she does night in and night out. It’s not a long list. And if she took as many shots as some others do, her numbers would be through the roof. But she’s trying to win every game. That’s been her MO since day 1. She’d rather score 10 points and win then get 40 and lose.”

Auriemma had two NCAA championship teams before Taurasi and five (out of 11 now, four in the Stewart era) when she left. Taurasi also played for Auriemma at two Olympics and two World Championships from 2010-16, all gold-medal undefeated finishes.

Taurasi and Auriemma go back a quarter century to when he was recruiting her and her mother, who preferred Diana to stay in California for college.

“She was young and brash and outspoken, carried her in a way different than everyone else,” at 16, Auriemma says. “She has cockiness and swagger that you just didn’t see. I was at a camp watching her play and she walked right over to me with this other girl on the team in front of 300 coaches and says, ‘Can I get your autograph?’

“I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that.’ She said, ‘It’s not for me. It’s for her.’ That’s kind of who she is and how she’s always been.”

Auriemma sees Taurasi at 41 as “more economical” in her movements and “seems to bitch and moan less, which saves energy. She has a presence about her on floor like always. There’s a level of comfort she has because she’s so confident in her ability.

“She’s not able to do all the things she did, but for stretches of the game she looks the same as Diana has always looked.” Almost exactly how Bird, another UConn great, at 41 closed out her career.

“They take pride in how they perform,” Auriemma says. “They never want to be out there ceremonially, like I’m out here because I’m a legend. I want to be out here because I contribute to our team’s ability to win and I can still serve a purpose rather than just going up and down the floor.”

He believes that reasoning will apply when it comes to Taurasi’s pursuit of a sixth Olympics, more than any other basketball player male or female. “There’s value in having her because in a tie game with three seconds left if I was coaching, the ball will be in her hands. Whether she shot it or passes to somebody who made a bucket, you want her on your team.”

Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury June 20th 2023 vs. Spark
June 5th 2023 @ New York Liberty

Don’t forget about her assists and rebounds

There are at least 10,000 opinions about Taurasi.

Those, like the points, are a byproduct of her longevity and brass demeanor that has a female precedent in Cheryl Miller, who dropped 105 points in a high school game five months before Taurasi was born in 1982 in the same southern California area.

Had Taurasi’s WNBA career overlapped with Miller’s run as Mercury head coach (1997-2000), some WNBA officials might still be in therapy today.

“She’s such a competitor and still talking trash plenty as she’s going up and down the court,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo says. “She clearly loves playing basketball and the good competition of it. I would imagine that’s one of the things that continues to fuel her. She has nothing left to prove, is considered one of the best if not the best player to ever play. I would imagine she’s out there because she still pursuit of a championship and trying to get the most out of herself every day.”

Lobo preceded Bird and Taurasi at Connecticut then played on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and was one of three initial WNBA signees. Her pro career only lasted until 2003 due to injuries then she joined ESPN in 2004 and has been a national commentator for the entirety of Taurasi’s WNBA career.

“It’s hard to fathom somebody else playing as long as Diana at as high a level as Diana and being able to touch this (record) at any point,” Lobo says. “I don’t know if we’ll see it again and if we do, how long before we do.

“As incredible as this is in terms of sheer number of points, her impact on her team and its success is so much bigger than that. She’s always been such an incredibly great teammate, always somebody who elevates those around her. Even the little things. She gives more high fives than any player I’ve ever seen. That’s an energy-giving boost to a teammate. She does so many things that impact winning.”

The 6-foot Taurasi has more than 2,000 career assists (fifth all-time) and rebounds (24th), the only WNBA player with that 2K combination. Above and beyond her No. 1 rank in points, field goals, 3-pointers and free throws.

Auriemma is critical of the WNBA for not celebrating Taurasi more as the “greatest player in history. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for it. But if acting like a s—head sometimes on the floor kept you from being regarded as the best, in every other sport there would be a lot of guys missing from that list.”

On the longevity spectrum, Taurasi, Bird and Taj McWilliams-Franklin are the only WNBA players at 41 or older, not including a one-game special appearance by Nancy Lieberman at 50. Taurasi (at 36), Cynthia Cooper (36) and DeWanna Bonner (35) are the only players 35-older to outscore their age.

Diana Taurasi The Goat
Diana Taurasi, the GOAT

When it comes to Arizona, Taurasi is “on the Phoenix Mount Rushmore,” Mercury GM Pitman says. “It’s Larry (Fitzgerald, also drafted in 2004 by the Arizona Cardinals) and Diana then we’ll find the other two.”

After averaging 17.4 points in the first seven games this season, Taurasi went scoreless against Seattle on June 13 for just the fifth time in her WNBA regular-season career. She sat out the next three games with a hamstring injury, slowing the march to 10,000 and again showing the fragility of playing into your 40s.

Taurasi is under contract through next season, which would take her to a solo record 20 in the WNBA and coincide with the Paris Olympics. She and Bird are five-time Olympic gold medalists. USA Basketball has other viable guard options for Paris but then again Taurasi’s experience and presence is hard to turn down.

“It kind of sets up hopefully for an Olympic run,” Taurasi allows. “Twenty years is nice and round. But a lot can happen in a short amount of time. We’ll have to reassess after this season.”

A season that began 2-10 resulting in a coaching change, weighing heavier on Taurasi than a record she would just as soon not become a big deal. But it makes her reflective about Lou Zylstra and Steve Kavaloski and their foundational AAU coaching before she went east for college.

“These coaches would really help me fine tune these little things that would help me get a little bit better every summer,” Taurasi says. “Even now when I have a couple of games not shooting the ball well, I can always trace back to these little things they would tell me to get me back on track. Those things stay with you forever.”

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