Throughout the season, the Phoenix Mercury have emphasized players knowing their role. Fourth-year pro Megan Gustafson has played her role and then some. She is averaging 3.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game while seeing the floor for 9.2 minutes.
While the statistics aren’t eye-popping, her work ethic has impressed her coaches. Before the team’s game against the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday, head coach Vanessa Nygaard raved about Gustafson’s performance this season.
“She was an unstoppable scorer at Iowa. And when you come to this level and figure out where your place is with that, she can still provide those skills,” Nygaard said.
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Gustafson led the nation in scoring (25.7 points per game), field goal percentage (67.1%) and field goals made (320) in her junior season at the University of Iowa in 2017-18. The next season, she led the nation again with 27.6 points per game on 69.6% shooting. Even with that ability to score, though, she fell to 17th overall to the Dallas Wings in the 2019 WNBA Draft.
In her rookie season in the WNBA, she came off the bench and averaged 2.9 points and 2.5 rebounds in 9.5 minutes. The majority of her points came from the paint, not from beyond the arc. In fact, the latter was nearly nonexistent: Gustafson shot 1-of-9 from the 3-point line for the entire year. Yet that was an improvement from college, when she took only two threes in four seasons.
In 21 games over her next two WNBA seasons, she only took one three in 2020 with Dallas and two in 2021 as a member of the Washington Mystics. But she went to work in the offseason, and the confidence she gained from practicing the shot was undeniable.
“Getting up shots whenever I can, whether it’s before practice, after practice, on off days, it really translates over,” Gustafson said. “It gives you confidence when you’re hitting shots in practice. And when you’re doing extra shots in workouts, it translates into the game.”
How Gustafson got here
The 2022 season has been one of uncertainty for Phoenix. Gustafson felt that uncertainty, too. In April, the Mystics waived her, and she searched for a team to call home. Two days before the season started, Phoenix signed her to a training camp contract, and she made the active roster. Gustafson spoke about how Phoenix has maximized her role:
“I’ve been working on my game behind the scenes. Obviously, I’ve been able to develop when I was at Dallas behind the scenes and then with Washington a little bit, too. But I just appreciate Phoenix for bringing me in and believing in me. Not that the other teams didn’t. It’s just that the role wasn’t right for me.”
The role seemed simple: Be a complementary scorer off the bench. Phoenix realized that scoring acumen in her first game, as she played 11 minutes and posted six points on 2-of-3 shooting. Still, she took no 3-pointers. Gustafson flipped the script against the Las Vegas Aces and attempted a career-high three 3-pointers, cashing in two.
Teammate Kristine Anigwe described the impact that Gustafson has had since joining Phoenix. “She’s been a key player coming off the bench, and I think she brings a lot of energy on the floor,” Anigwe told The Next. “She knows the game. It’s her fourth year, so she’s basically a vet right now. She’s getting better in every game.”
When she gets quality minutes, Gustafson is a force on the floor. She has attempted more threes (13) through 18 games than she has in any previous season and made 38.5% of them. The addition of an outside shot opens up other areas of her game.
“It helps because I’m attracting the defense to come out a little bit more on me and that opens up the lanes inside, which releases a little bit of pressure,” Gustafson said. “It also releases a little bit of pressure off of my teammates, especially if I’m in with Tina [Charles] or Breezy [Brianna Turner]. They obviously get a lot of attention inside, and so I’m just going to try to go in and do whatever I can to help make their jobs easier.”
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How did Gustafson break the mold?
Gustafson has always had a strong work ethic, and it has helped her evolve her game as a professional. In 2020, for example, Gustafson got in the gym daily despite COVID-19 shutdowns and made hundreds of 3-pointers every day. “I wanted to show that I am a versatile player and that I can do more than be a post player inside,” Gustafson said.
This season, Gustafson has worked specifically with assistant coach Cinnamon Lister on her 3-point shot. “She has been phenomenal. She works her butt off and she’s really developed her outside game,” Lister said. “And so we’ve been able to get to the gym and work on her … pick-and-pop actions.”
Lister explained how that practice and repetition have produced a consistent 3-point shot. “I’d say the consistency of it and her ability to get it off have improved,” she said. “She’s been consistently shooting it the same way, and with that, you’ll naturally just develop a consistent shot.”
Gustafson’s teammates have also noticed her improved 3-point shooting. Sam Thomas, who has seen the floor with Gustafson as part of the second unit, said, “She’s always been able to shoot, but I think just being more consistent at it is the key. She’s been knocking down those huge threes for us when she gets her minutes.”
If Gustafson continues to take and make 3-pointers at this clip rather than being solely an interior presence, that will only benefit her career and make her more valuable in the eyes of WNBA coaches. And Nygaard believes that Gustafson’s career has greater potential than people might realize.
“Megan is consistently a hard worker, and you’ve seen her adapt from her time at Iowa,” Nygaard said. “She clearly loves the game of basketball. People that really make it are these people that really, really love it, and her ceiling is high. I think she has a lot more potential to give as she showed her improvement through our season and her first couple of seasons as a pro.”
The Next’s Lucas Seehafer contributed reporting for this story.