PHOENIX—Whenever a group undergoes change, it’s inevitable that attention will ultimately shift not toward what has changed, but what has stayed constant; what those remaining have done to surpass expectations, or what they have failed to do to maintain the status quo. Brittney Griner knows this all too well.
For the Phoenix Mercury to regain the glory of a three-time WNBA champion, they’ll need Griner, one of only two holdovers from last season’s 18-16 team, to reach heights unseen anywhere in the league—and perhaps at any point in its history. Unlocking that dominance within this roster, this team on which the pressure of the past pushes harder than most, will be difficult. But it’s all part of the plan, one move at a time.
“It feels different, but sometimes you need change,” Griner told The Summitt earlier this week at Mercury practice. Griner returned to Phoenix this year to a remarkably different set of faces than she left last summer. During another offseason playing in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg, Griner saw a Mercury roster in transition.
Fan favorite Candice Dupree, a member of the 2014 championship team, was traded to the Indiana Fever in a deal that eventually put veteran forward Camille Little in orange and purple. Reserve center Isabelle Harrison was packaged with the Mercury’s 2017 first-round pick to acquire lightning bug guard Danielle Robinson from San Antonio. Change as widespread as this requires leadership from a team’s star players, along with more responsibility.
Though you wouldn’t know expect it from a player so competitive and emphatic on the court, no-holds-barred aggressiveness does not come easily for Griner. The former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year has more room to grow on offense, and that’s where her progress will shine most this season. Mercury coach Sandy Brondello is highly confident in her star center’s ability to dominate on both ends: “I believe in her and I’ve seen her do it,” Brondello told The Summitt.
The relationship between Brondello, Griner and Mercury star Diana Taurasi (the only other holdover from last year’s squad) has roots across the world at this point. The coach and combo guard join Griner in Russia each fall, and see improvement annually. “The sky’s the limit for Brittney,” Brondello said Wednesday night, after a career-high 32 point performance for the star center in a 85-62 home victory over the Fever. It’s how people start to speak when a talented player matches physical gifts to polished game.
At her best, Griner is a marvel to watch on both ends. Her defensive highlight reel is unparalleled, the way she can manipulate the half court to her will. Driving guards are confounded by long arms arriving out of nowhere, right as their shot takes flight; frontcourt players rarely see the orange of the rim, drowned out by the orange of jersey, as body meets body and Griner takes position. She’s led the league in block percentage each season of her career so far, and ranks among the best-ever in WNBA history at rejecting shots, but this year, more of the focus is on using defensive excellence to create offense.
Adding players like Robinson and backup point guard Leilani Mitchell happened with the intent of improving the team’s league ranking in pace (fifth last season). It’s not difficult to imagine the defensive tandem of Robinson and Griner forcing turnovers and difficult shot attempts—the easiest paths to transition opportunities—all season long. Phoenix outscored the Fever 14-9 in fastbreak situations and Griner was a clear benefactor, changing shots on one end and finishing them on the other.
“I love it,” Griner said of her short time with Robinson. “Her coming off one of my screens, denying a screen, going to the basket, getting past her defender.”
Robinson has the potential to unlock new areas of Griner’s game. Brondello’s system focuses on ball and player movement, and it’s not uncommon to see Griner at the top of the key early in a possession, using her size and vision to get the ball moving before finishing over a smaller player down low. If the Mercury schemes can help create mismatches for Griner, Robinson’s job will be to give her teammate opportunities to take advantage.
“We think we can stay true to our system and get great shots, but we have special players on our team,” Brondello said. Sometimes, it’s about sticking with what you have.
The thing everyone talks about when discussing Griner’s growth on the court is confidence. Brondello explained Griner’s confidence as simply an understanding of what she can and can’t do. Teammate and close friend Taurasi sees it, too: “We can depend on her every single night. I saw that for eight months in Russia, and I think she’s used that confidence to come here and play.”
Learning and developing take time, but Griner listens to it all. Asked about any pressure she might feel as a result of playing for a changing team, she is positive and self-assured.
“That was kind of put on me a little bit—I’m getting older, becoming more of a leader… and now I’m embracing that role more, she said.”
Mix patience and hard work, and the results will amaze. The opportunity that Griner and so many other players have to go hone their craft overseas pays dividends, and Griner benefits perhaps even more greatly through the presence of “her team”, as she calls the familiar faces that travel to Yekaterinburg with her each fall.
It’s safe to say the climb toward a true leadership role has been uncomfortable at times. That makes sense for a team with a WNBA legend in Taurasi and so many great minds across the organization, but the feeling now is that it’s Griner’s time.
“I’m embracing it. Before I didn’t want it, but now I do,” she said. When she’s at her best, there’s not a team in the league that can stop her. No single player possess the combination of size and skill that Griner has, nor the energy to match. Trying to stop her down low is a losing game, one which capsizes into defeat when Griner is locked in. The ability to lock in seems like less of a question mark with each passing game.
Her career high came after a disappointing defeat on opening day, one which Taurasi called a “third preseason game” and one in which Griner only grabbed two rebounds despite success scoring the ball.
The team was disappointed, but after two days to re-focus and get fresh, Griner answered the call. She missed only two shots all night, as Indiana centers Erlana Larkins and Natalie Achnowa posed little threat, despite sizable frames. It felt like a night that, as Griner roared into the crowd shot after shot, she was also calling attention to the new normal.
Sometimes, as Griner told The Summitt, things just don’t work out the way you think they will. But as you do when you’re a leader, you rise above all that. Griner is taking her next step.