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Briann January leads the Mercury on the court and ASU on the sideline

Seattle Storm's Jordin Canada, right, defends Phoenix Mercury's Briann January in the second half of a WNBA basketball game Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Seattle. The Mercury won 87-82. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

PHOENIX — Briann January brings an undeniable energy to the game of basketball.

Whether she’s dribbling the ball up the court or drawing up a defensive scheme on the clipboard, January carries that energy with her.

“I just love playing this game,” said January, face full of sweat after practice. “As a point guard, as a leader, as a floor general, you’re the first person the opponent sees. So if I have that energy, everybody feeds off it.”

This spring, January completed her first season as an assistant coach for the ASU women’s basketball team, where she also played from 2006-09 and is listed near the top of several team records.

This summer, she is back in the Valley, but this time on the local professional team. January has helped the Phoenix Mercury get to a 5-3 start, averaging 7.5 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 61.1 percent from 3-point range.

January was the type of player that a scorer like Diana Taurasi hated playing against. Now, Taurasi gets to reap the benefits of January’s efforts.

“She’s tenacious. She not afraid,” Taurasi said. “She’s the type of person who won’t back down, no matter what.”

As a player, January has a reputation as hard-nosed and hounds opposing point guards with relentless pressure.

It helped her become a nine-time WNBA All-Defensive selection.

“We usually can rely on her energy and her push,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “Some nights you’re just not going to hit your shots, but she’ll still play hard.”

From a coach’s perspective, her intensity is channeled into positive energy. Her age, 31, makes her someone players on the team can relate to and trust. Her decorated career, which includes a WNBA championship, makes her someone they can respect.

“She doesn’t get angry. She’s one of the happiest people to be around,” ASU point guard Kiara Russell said. “It helps a lot with the team chemistry to have someone we can talk to about our problems, or anything else. … Her positivity inspires us to want to be better players. I think a lot of us aspire to be her one day.”

Performing double duties as an assistant coach and a professional player – with quality years still ahead – January offers the Sun Devils something very unique.

During practices, January has no problem hanging up her whistle, lacing up her shoes and scrimmaging against the team she coaches.

“I had to jump on them,” January mused. “They started feeling themselves a little bit. Their confidence was growing from beating up on our scout team guys. I was like … um … no. I had to bring them down a few notches.”

But the brief moments of offseason competition bring her joy.

“They’re great. It was good for me because they’re young athletic and strong,” January said. “And I think I was able to challenge them in ways other defenders wouldn’t.”

It’s an invaluable experience for Russell, a defensive-minded carbon copy of January, who someday dreams of playing professionally.  

“It’s almost impossible, but going against her makes me a better player,” Russell said. “We even play one-on-one after practice. It’s fun, and I’m lucky to get the chance to play with her. Her speed makes her really hard to guard. Her first step is just so fast, and she’s so agile.”

January will assume her role on ASU’s coaching staff again in the fall, but for now, she’s focusing on her job as the starting point guard for the Mercury as they chase a championship.

But the lessons learned from her time as a coach should only help her on that quest.

“When I was just a player, I’d get really upset and carry it with me.” January said. “As a coach, it’s just get back to the drawing board. You need to adjust and learn from it and treat it as a stepping stone.”

The coaching job also gives January, as she plays in her 10th season, the chance to conserve the high energy level for which she’s become known.

Most members of the WNBA play all year long. January no longer has to do that.

“I don’t want to say I’m getting up there, but I’ve got to be smart about how I handle my body,” January said. “It allows me to build strength and work on my game, which other players don’t get the opportunity to do.”

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