What Vanessa Nygaard's coaching hire means for the Phoenix Mercury

Vanessa Nygaard, who played for Stanford from 1993-98, was a WNBA assistant coach last season on Bill Laimbeer's staff in Las Vegas. Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

When Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer got word Friday afternoon that Vanessa Nygaard is expected to be named the Phoenix Mercury's new head coach, she was elated.

It's been 24 years since the perpetually upbeat Nygaard played for the Cardinal, but VanDerveer has kept in touch and watched her coaching career.

"There is no one more enthusiastic," VanDerveer said. "She oozes enthusiasm. She will not be outworked. She has a great passion for the game, and she's prepared herself for this. And she's just a really good person. I'm excited for Phoenix and for Vanessa."

Nygaard's hiring -- which is expected to be made official on Monday -- continues a recent trend of former WNBA players getting the chance to be head coaches. Dating to December 2020 when Vickie Johnson was hired by the Dallas Wings, every new head coach in the league has been a former WNBA player.

Noelle Quinn was elevated to take over the Seattle Storm when Dan Hughes stepped down for health reasons last May. Tanisha Wright was hired by the Atlanta Dream in October. Becky Hammon was brought on board by the Las Vegas Aces in December, and Sandy Brondello -- who had been in Phoenix -- took over the New York Liberty earlier this month.

Pro players becoming pro head coaches is a natural progression in all sports. But with the WNBA entering its 26th season, the coaching pool of former players has gotten the opportunity to grow.

"I think it's great; they understand the league," VanDerveer said. "They've played in it, they coached in it. They understand the travel, the fatigue, all the things that go along with it."

That's no guarantee of success, and there are very good coaches in the league who never played professional basketball. But the opportunities for former players to coach WNBA franchises is also in keeping with the league's goals to elevate women in leadership positions.

Nygaard -- who spent the 2021 WNBA season as an assistant to Bill Laimbeer in Las Vegas -- was part of a Stanford squad that went to the women's Final Four three consecutive years from 1995 through 1997. Those were fan-favorite teams, with standouts like Kate Starbird and Jamila Wideman along with Nygaard, who was consistent comic relief. Her sense of humor is a Nygaard staple, along with a vibrant personality.

She then played five seasons in the WNBA (2000-04), including stints with the now-defunct Portland Fire and Miami Sol. Since retiring from playing in 2005, she has had a lot of experience coaching at different levels of the game. Nygaard's experience and abilities at the high school level, in particular, could be beneficial in the WNBA, where the best of the best go as players, but there isn't a whole lot of time at that level for skill development.

The fact that she also both played in the WNBA and been an assistant coach in the league (in 2008-09 and 2021) means she understands how to deal with professionals. And if Diana Taurasi returns in 2022 as is expected, Nygaard's relationship with her, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner will be one of the biggest keys to the Mercury picking up where they left off in reaching the 2021 WNBA Finals.

Nygaard has a self-deprecating wit; in her college days she sometimes would make it sound as if she accidentally got into Stanford, somehow slipping under the high bar required for admission. But she's very bright and a quick study, and her people skills can help with the coaching transition.

"I think she's the complete package," VanDerveer said. "People are people, whether they are professional athletes, college athletes or high school athletes. What do you want from a coach? Someone who's going to help you be the best you can be, and give your team the best chance to be successful. Who cares about you as a person. Vanessa is all that, and she's a tremendous mentor."