Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard ready to ‘tighten the screws’

Feb 24, 2022, 10:50 AM
(L-R) Assistant coaches Tanisha Wright, Vanessa Nygaard and Sugar Rodgers of the Las Vegas Aces loo...
(L-R) Assistant coaches Tanisha Wright, Vanessa Nygaard and Sugar Rodgers of the Las Vegas Aces look on from the bench as their players take on the Connecticut Sun during their game at Michelob ULTRA Arena on May 23, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Sun defeated the Aces 72-65. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vanessa Nygaard does not bring prior WNBA head-coaching reps to a veteran Phoenix Mercury team, making her appointment as head coach perhaps unique. The gig is about managing the personalities of future Hall of Famers and lending critiques, after all.

From the outside perspective, that could be an intimidating position to be in.

But if there is reason to believe Nygaard will feel free to lead her new team with tough love, it’s the message future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi gave her new coach.

“The first time I met with Diana, she told me, ‘You need to help us tighten the screws,'” Nygaard told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Thursday. “So I’m coming in here completely focused on doing those little things it takes to win a championship and helping those players get over that hump. I feel absolutely blessed and honored to be given this responsibility. It’s a good responsibility to have.”

Born in Scottsdale and raised in Southern California, Nygaard’s resume may be unique. Yet it is littered with learning moments from basketball greats.

She spent 2021 on the staff of the Las Vegas Aces, who themselves were coming off a WNBA Finals loss the year prior. She worked under former NBA player and long-time WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer and coached a roster led by A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum.

Going back to her playing career, Nygaard played on three Final Four squads for the Stanford Cardinal from 1994-98 under legendary coach Tara VanDerveer.

“She really taught me work ethic,” Nygaard said of her college coach. “There’s no stone unturned, there’s no amount of video that shouldn’t be watched, there’s no detail that’s not important. A lot of times, it’s simplicity that is the more important thing for success. She taught me all those things and continues to be an ally to me.”

Nygaard played in the WNBA for four teams from 1999-2003 and during her playing career became a college assistant at Long Beach State. She also coached at Pepperdine, then headed to the WNBA with the San Antonio Stars in 2008 before landing with a prep team, Windward School, for over a decade.

Looking ahead, she’ll be leading Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and newcomer Tina Charles. Those are big names. It’s quite the opportunity for the first-time WNBA head coach.

Nygaard, 46, knows that expectations are high for a seemingly improved team that is coming off a WNBA Finals loss. And she’s been given the greenlight from those stars to constructively criticize.

“They’re ready for a new voice. I’m that new voice,” Nygaard said, adding she hopes to make tweaks in the team’s culture and accountability departments.

“They all were so close last year. They’re hungry. … They want to be coached, so I’m here to do some coaching.”

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