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Three years ago, Brittney Griner was a presence at the WNBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas. This year, she’ll be be there only in spirit, as she was named an honorary captain while imprisoned in Russia. (Photo by Ethan Miller)

By Sameer Malla

PHOENIX – As the Phoenix Mercury reached the midpoint of the WNBA season with a 6-11 record, the starters for July’s All-Star game in Chicago were announced Wednesday.

No Mercury player was selected among the 10 starters. This is the first year without an All-Star starter from Phoenix since 2009, when guards Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter were selected by the coaches as reserves. The last time the whole franchise was shut out of a WNBA All-Star selection? In 2002, when coach Cynthia Cooper’s Mercury finished 11-21, the fourth-worst record (out of 16 teams) in the WNBA.

Taurasi was in her sixth year in the league in 2009, with a Rookie of the Year (2004) and four All-WNBA First Team awards to her name. Surprisingly enough, 2009 – the year she came off the bench at the All-Star game – was the only year Taurasi won the regular season MVP award out of her 18 seasons in the league. That team finished with a 23-11 record and defeated the Tamika Catchings-led Indiana Fever to capture its second WNBA Finals title in franchise history.

WNBA commissioner Kathy Engelbert did announce that Brittney Griner is an honorary All-Star starter for this year’s All-Star game. Griner has been imprisoned in Russia since Februrary after Moscow airport authorities said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her possession.

“During each season of Brittney’s career in which there has been an All-Star Game, she has been selected as an All-Star,” Engelbert said. “It is not difficult to imagine that if BG were here with us this season, she would once again be selected and would, no doubt, show off her incredible talents. So, it is only fitting that she be named as an honorary starter today and we continue to work on her safe return to the U.S.”

After hearing the news of Griner’s honorary selection Wednesday, Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard continues to implore President Joe Biden and his administration to do more. She also hopes that if Griner does not return by the All-Star break, that the message of her imprisonment is amplified that weekend.

“It’s been 126 days since Brittney Griner was wrongfully imprisoned in Russia,” Nygaard said. “We are strongly urging the Biden administration to do everything they can to help bring Brittany home. And we need everyone trying their best to get the attention of the Biden administration, because 126 days is way too long.

“Hopefully her selection to the All-Star game brings her name to the front of the news again. I am hopeful that if she is not home by the All Star Game, hopefully she is but if she is not, that this is the most important message of that day. That her selection isn’t just a selection because of the great player she is, but because of our league’s commitment to helping to amplify the message that we need to make sure everything is done to bring her home.”

The composition of the All-Star voting is 50% from the fans, and 25% each from the media and current WNBA players. Four guards and six frontcourt players are ultimately selected.

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Among the top 10 at their positions was guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who was fourth among the fans at guard, third by media and 14th based on player votes. That placed her sixth at the position, behind starters Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young (Aces), Sabrina Ionescu (New York Liberty) and Sue Bird (Seattle Storm).

Diggins-Smith is fifth in the WNBA in points per game (18.7), eighth in assists per game (5.3), sixth in steals per game (1.7), 10th in scoring efficiency (18.9) and is seen as the main threat for Phoenix on a nightly basis.

“I’m just trying to make plays,” Diggins-Smith said after an early June 81-74 home win against the Los Angeles Sparks. “I know that when I’m aggressive. We get something out of that. Just being aggressive, trying to get to the basket opening up for my teammates and then just playing off of each other.”

The rest of the All-Star selections will be made by the 12 WNBA head coaches by Tuesday for the July 10 WNBA All-Star game at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.

The last time the Mercury did not have an All-Star starter (2009), the team won the WNBA Finals. Will lightning strike twice for this current WNBA season? Only time will tell.



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