WNBA's Oldest Rookie Turner Headed to Playoffs
By Jeff Griesch
You can hear her love for basketball in Yvonne Turner's voice. The sweet sounds of Turner's soft-spoken tones simply ooze with it. But behind the love and sweetness in Turner's voice is a hard-nosed, mentally tough, determined professional who has scratched and clawed her way to a WNBA roster spot as the league's oldest rookie with the Phoenix Mercury in 2017.
"It has been a wild journey in professional basketball, but I have honestly loved every minute of it," the former Nebraska women's basketball great said by phone from Phoenix over the weekend. "I wouldn't really change a thing because I have learned so much. I don't take anything for granted because I know how hard I had to work to get here. Now that I am here, I am just trying to make the most of it by staying ready to help my team no matter what they ask me to do."
At age 29, Turner not only surprised the world by making Phoenix's regular-season roster, she has achieved the spot of WNBA starter during the final two weeks of the regular season for a Mercury team that will play host to Seattle in the opening round of the WNBA Playoffs on Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, with a live telecast starting at 6 p.m. (CT) on ESPN2.
Turner's desire has never been a question, and her skills have been apparent dating back to her days as a WBCA High School All-American at Bellevue East, but you have to understand that the WNBA is quite honestly the "best of the best of the best, sir...with honors," to quote actor Will Smith in Men in Black.
The WNBA is made up of just 12 teams of 12 players each, which leaves just 144 active WNBA players on any given day each year. In contrast, the 30 NBA teams have a maximum roster size of 15 players, giving it 450 active NBA players on any given day during the season.
To put it another way, the WNBA features fewer active players than the NBA has starters, so Turner's seven-year journey from being an All-Big 12 guard at Nebraska to preparing to be a starter in the WNBA Playoffs is a lesson in determination.
"I have never given up on myself, and I never sell myself short," Turner said. "I am just going with whatever God has planned for me. I know how hard it is to get here. I was in training camp with San Antonio and I was in training camp with Chicago twice, but even though I got cut all those times, I never gave up on myself. I just stayed in the gym like my brother told me and kept working on my game."
Turner, who is set to celebrate her 30th birthday in October, has played all 34 games for the Mercury this season, helping the three-time WNBA champions to an 18-16 record. She started the final four games of the regular season, helping Phoenix to close the year with three consecutive wins, starting with a 75-71 win at Seattle on Aug. 27. Phoenix closed the season Sunday with an 84-70 run past the Atlanta Dream.
Turner played one of her best games of the year in an 86-66 thumping of playoff-bound Connecticut on Friday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix. The 5-8 guard from Omaha scored 13 points and added five rebounds in just over 21 minutes of action. It was her fifth double-figure scoring game of the season.
"It is kind of amazing that I am starting right now as we head into the playoffs, but honestly it doesn't matter whether I start, come off the bench or don't play at all, or whether I play two minutes or 22 minutes, my role does not change and neither does my mentality," Turner said. "I have the best player of all time (Diana Taurasi) playing in front of me or next me, so I don't need to try to do anything outside of my box that I'm not capable of doing. As a professional, you've always got to be ready. In the WNBA, there are a lot of injuries, a lot of people get waived and there are a lot of trades. When coach calls your name, you've got to be ready. You've got to know everything you might ever do in a game. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how talented you might be, in order to survive here, you need to be mentally tough."
Turner said the Mercury feel like they are playing their best basketball of the season as they head into the playoffs, hoping to make a run at their fourth title.
"Once you get down to the playoffs or the championships in any season, it all boils down to mental toughness," Turner said. "I think we are a tough team that is hitting our peak and playing our best basketball right now. I just need to play my role and do what I can do to help us."
Turner has averaged 5.1 points and 1.1 assists in 12.8 minutes per game throughout the season. Her 16.0 points per 40 minutes make her highly productive, especially considering her defense-first mentality.
Defense has always been at the heart of Turner's game. At Nebraska, she was the 2010 Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-Big 12 selection for the best team in Husker history. Turner was a three-year starter for the Huskers and helped Nebraska capture the Big 12 regular-season title and earn a No. 1 seed in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Turner finished her Husker career ranked No. 5 on Nebraska's career steals list with 229, and she was a three-time member of the Big 12's All-Defensive Team. Along the way, she scored 1,101 points while playing in 126 games with 95 starts. Turner was Nebraska's "hound" on defense, regularly picking up the ball in the backcourt to rattle the opposing guards.
She was also a dangerous threat on the offensive end, averaging 11.6 points per game as a senior while knocking down a career-high 82 three-pointers. Turner tied for the Big Ten lead with 2.8 three-pointers per game as a senior in 2009-10. She averaged 13.9 points and 2.4 steals per Big 12 game to help the Huskers notch the first perfect, unbeaten season in Big 12 women's basketball history with a 16-0 record. Nebraska won its first 30 games in 2009-10, completing a perfect 29-0 regular season, before finishing with a school-best 32-2 mark as NU's first NCAA Sweet Sixteen squad.
"I am always going to remember my time playing at Nebraska because I learned so much there," Turner said. "We had some great players and some great teams. It really laid the foundation for the mental toughness that I have developed throughout my career. When you're young, you kind of think the game is just easy and fun. When you get to college and the professional level, you realize how hard it is."
As a senior at Nebraska, Turner played alongside fellow Husker seniors Kelsey Griffin (first round, No. 3 overall) and Cory Montgomery (third round, No. 25 overall) who got an immediate taste of the WNBA. Another fellow starter in the backcourt at Nebraska, then-freshman point guard Lindsey Moore, was also a first-round WNBA draft pick (No. 12 overall, 2013). Moore won a WNBA title with the Minnesota Lynx as a rookie in 2013, before seeing her WNBA career come to an end in 2014. Montgomery played in the preseason, but did not make a WNBA regular-season roster. Griffin spent five seasons with the Connecticut Sun and earned a spot on the 2010 WNBA All-Rookie Team, but she ended her WNBA career after the 2014 season to concentrate on her WNBL career in Australia.
Turner started her professional career in Australia, playing for Bundaburg in 2010-11 before catching on with USC Freiburg in Germany later in 2010-11 and in the 2011-12 season.
After getting her feet wet overseas for two years, she took her game to a much higher level by starring for Dynamo GUVD Novosibirsk in the Russian League in 2012-13. She made a name for herself in Russia by averaging 14.5 points, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals per game. She also earned a WNBA Training Camp contract from San Antonio.
"Russia was a great experience because if you can survive and stand out in the Russian League then you have really accomplished something," Turner said. "The way I was able to raise my game in Russia allowed me to get a spot in my first WNBA Training Camp, and it opened up a lot more doors for me professionally overseas."
Turner moved on to Turkey to play for Antkya in 2013-14, before earning another WNBA Training Camp invite, this time in Chicago, in 2014. After competing in Spain in 2014-15, Turner averaged nearly 17 points per game for Wisla Krakow in Poland in 2015-16. She made another trip to Training Camp with Chicago before the 2016 season.
"Honestly, I think the biggest step I made in my career was my season in Poland," Turner said. "We faced all kinds of challenges head on in Poland. We had some great players on our team, but we went into some games with only five active players because of injuries or other things. No matter what I had to go out and perform and really kind of carry the load for my team. It took my own mental toughness to a whole other level. The way I had to be a beast in Poland earned me another WNBA Training Camp spot in Chicago and a contract with Sopran in Hungary."
Last season with Uniqa Sopran in the Hungarian and EuroLeague, Turner averaged 18.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists to lead the entire EuroLeague in scoring - a league that included her new WNBA teammates Taurasi and Brittney Griner at UNMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. Turner's performance in Hungary earned her a personal invite to Phoenix Training Camp from Mercury Head Coach Sandy Brondello, and Turner's fourth try at making a WNBA roster was the charm. She is now making the most of every minute in Phoenix.
"Honestly, I love Phoenix. I feel like it is a home away from home for me," Turner said. "The players, the coaches, the board members, the management, they are all legitimately nice, kind people. They take care of us so we don't have to worry about anything but doing our jobs on the court."
Turner will be a building block for a new-look Sopran team in 2017-18, as she will return to her spot in the backcourt with the Hungarian League champions soon after her WNBA season comes to end. She is under contract with Sopran through the 2018-19 season, but she knows her career overseas will wait until she completes this season's journey with the Mercury.
"I am really looking forward to the playoffs so we can show everybody how good this team can be," Turner said. "I am getting older, but I am in good shape and take care of myself. I feel like I have a good mindset and I'm in a great environment."