What Briann January’s Return Means for Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury re-signed six-time All-Defense selection Briann January to a multi-year deal, per a team release. Phoenix struck gold last offseason, acquiring an ideal fit with its star players at a relatively low cost. (They turned Danielle Robinson (a poor fit with Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner) and the No. 8 overall pick into January and the No. 12 overall pick.)

January drove a core storyline in the team’s semifinal series with the Seattle Storm. She drew the primary assignment on All-Star guard Jewell Loyd at the start of Game 2. Loyd shot just 9-of-36 from the field from that point on, and the Storm narrowly edged the Mercury at home in a winner-take-all Game 5.

Let’s use January’s re-signing as an opportunity to dive further into that gaudy stat—January’s overall impact, Loyd’s perceived struggles, what to watch for in future playoff series for both players—which stood out so much during a series for the ages.

LOYD’S CASE

Did January truly take Loyd out of her game for the rest of that series? How much did Loyd contribute to her own poor shooting? These questions need to be addressed out of fairness to Loyd, who drove so much of Seattle’s success for them to even get to that point.

Start with Game 1: Loyd scored a cool 23 on 9-of-16 shooting in 37 minutes. Getting to the middle of the floor in pick and roll or coming off screens led directly to five of those nine buckets.

Steph Talbot was not quick enough to stay in plays and prevent Loyd from getting those looks. Loyd also hit the shot of the game, flashing to the left elbow for a catch-and-shoot jumper to put the Storm up four with about a minute to play.

Talbot lost track of Loyd away from the ball. That Seattle possession appeared to otherwise be dead in the water. The Mercury would have had a chance to tie or take the lead with a stop on that trip.

Loyd was key in Game 2 despite a 2-of-9 shooting slash as she got to the free throw line 10 times. She then dished seven assists in Game 4 as the Storm found themselves in a 15-point hole at the end of the first quarter.

It’s difficult to pin too much on Loyd after charting the misses from the final four games of the series. Six of the 27 were ill-advised or forced. The others were either flaming bags at the end of the shot clock or open and of the variety she normally makes—pull up jumpers, open triples, quality looks at the rim. She simply went cold at the wrong time.

The double whammy: She only got to the free throw line four times in the final three games of the series.

January clearly had something to do with those struggles, though much of 1-on-1 defense is incredibly difficult to quantify or isolate. You have to look to the possessions that didn’t end with a Loyd shot, drawn foul or turnover. Those lead us to three keywords in detailing the work done by January: discourage, prevent, pursue.

DISCOURAGE

January gave Loyd reason not to further pursue a shot opportunity on some possessions with her ability to quickly get over and around screens. January is simply more nimble than Talbot in doing so.

Loyd made the right decision in those instances, making the next pass without bringing possessions to a screeching halt.

The Storm have multiple scoring threats and regularly cycled through several actions in the same possession. January’s efforts on these trips gave Loyd little reason to force the issue while allowing the Mercury to stick with their base matchups.

All three trips ended the same way: with a Breanna Stewart iso. You have to live with some of those.

At a minimum, the Mercury were able to keep DeWanna Bonner close to Stewart’s body over helping and recovering first. Switching onto Stewart was going to be untenable for the Mercury guards. Even Talbot, listed at 6-foot-2, was too small to contain Stewart 1-on-1.

Thus, January is also adding value in limiting must-switch possessions. It’s a separate conversation whether help needs to then come to Bonner. Phoenix has more of a say in who they funnel the ball to next. If you’re already scrambling with an over-matched defender stuck on Stewart, Seattle has the upper hand in a big way.

PREVENT

These are the easy wins to chalk up for January, completely walling off some of Loyd’s efforts to drive or attack in pick and roll. Note how she also manages to tag Natasha Howard rolling to the rim in the second clip, close out to Loyd on the perimeter and stick with her to force a tough jumper off the dribble.

There are no smoke and mirrors to these plays. Loyd is looking to create a shot or make a play, and January completely shut it down. Again, this happened for the Mercury without sending their defense into scramble mode or switching a much smaller player onto Stewart.

PURSUE

The playoffs can be unpredictable. One string of plays can turn the tide of an entire series. Neither team is surprising the other with a set or action late in a matchup. So the key question facing every player is: How many plays can you stay in?

January didn’t blink in her pursuit of Loyd. That approach will keep you in the picture to rearview contest a shot or get a hand up to make a shot 10 percent harder. Add those plays up over the course of a game, and any player can manufacture a handful of five or six-point swings.

WHY JANUARY FITS so well

The 3-and-D moniker is used incessantly for good reason. Every team can find minutes for players without major weaknesses that are going to add value on both ends. That value is accentuated in a 12-team league where star talent is distributed more evenly.

Most teams aren’t hurting for shot creation, and many have too much of it to consistently weaponize.

Eight WNBA players shot 40 percent or better on 100-plus 3-point attempts last season. January, Kelsey Plum, Jonquel Jones and Shekinna Stricklen were the only non-All-Stars among that group. The percentage (47.0 on 100 attempts) is a bit of an outlier, though January did shoot 43 percent on 107 attempts during 2012 with Indiana.

January’s role with the Mercury was very different from her career norm. Her job in 2018 almost consisted exclusively of spot-up shooting and attacking closeouts. Her usage rate of 12.5 per Basketball-Reference ranked well below her previous nine seasons, where each finished at or around 19.

The Mercury have Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner to build their actions around, and all three can go get you a bucket in a pinch. This change in role allows January to conserve more energy for those key defensive matchups because more of her shots are set up by others.

GOOD NEWS FOR BOTH SIDES

Seattle fans have little reason to sound any alarm bells over Loyd’s performance. Her 21 minutes played in Game 5 was equally jarring a number. But Sami Whitcomb rose to the occasion to make key plays and hit big shots in both series.

January did make life more difficult for Loyd, which certainly upped Phoenix’s chances to win the series. Many teams past, present and future could only aspire to have that card to play on an opponent’s No. 2 scorer.

The Mercury did not have a player of January’s ilk prior to last offseason, and the semifinals may have ended even before a Game 5 had they not acquired her. The good news doesn’t stop with 2018’s performance or the news of January’s new deal. She revealed to Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic recently that a shoulder injury had been bothering her throughout last season.

The Mercury knew upon acquiring January that they were getting a playoff-ready contributor. Her role was going to evolve because of Taurasi’s capabilities as a lead guard, but that health revelation indicates that 2019 could be even more fruitful.

Any additional creation handled by January helps coach Sandy Brondello keep her stars fresher in the regular season. The added occasional scoring element in the playoffs—where the game slows down and teams hone in on your primary scoring options—only makes the Mercury tougher to guard.

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