Brittney Griner is back: What to expect as the Phoenix Mercury center returns to the court
- Covered the Cardinals since 2012
- Graduate of Indiana University
- Member of Pro Football Writers of America
- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
It’s finally here. Brittney Griner makes her official return to the basketball court, to the Phoenix Mercury and to the WNBA on Friday as the 2023 season opens.
It’s a night anyone who cared about Griner before, during or after her detainment in Russia has been anticipating. The Los Angeles Sparks host the Mercury at 11 p.m. ET on ESPN.
It’s been 474 days since her last competitive game, which took place in Russia in late January 2022, and 578 days since she last played a WNBA game, which was Game 4 of the 2021 Finals.
After being detained in a Russian airport in February 2022, Griner spent 10 months in a Russian prison. Days after her release — she was freed in a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange in December — Griner declared her intention to play this season for the Mercury.
For the past five months, she’s practiced and prepared, tried to shake off the rust to find the Brittney Griner of old. Will she be that same player who was part of the MVP conversation in 2021? Probably not — not yet, at least.
This weekend, starting with Friday’s game in Los Angeles and Sunday’s home opener (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Chicago Sky, isn’t just about basketball. Sure, she’s expected to play in two games and score points and grab rebounds and block shots, but this weekend is more about welcoming Griner back to basketball.
What has made her such a consistent presence on court in the past? Where is Griner’s game at now? And what might we expect as the season progresses?
Griner was an MVP candidate when she last played in the WNBA, during the 2021 season. What have been her biggest strengths throughout her career?
She is so hard to guard and so good at guarding others. Griner is a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, who at 6-foot-9 with such great mobility, is a premiere rim protector and someone who can cover for miscues or mismatches her teammates face.
Offensively, she is pretty much automatic production, and has been throughout her career. There aren’t a lot of true centers in the league, but Griner is the highest level of the traditional 5 player. She is always a threat to dominate games in the paint no matter the defensive game plan against her.
Griner hasn’t always been what you might believe is an elite rebounder for her size, but that’s in part because of how she is drawn away from the basket at times because of the need for her defensive versatility.
Yet in 2021, she nearly averaged double figures in rebounding (9.5), which was part of what made her a strong MVP candidate. It’s not reasonable to expect her to play like 2021 anytime soon. But when you consider all she has been through, Griner is so gifted and appears determined, so there is a chance we might again see the 2021 version of her. If not this season, in a future one.
And even if Griner doesn’t physically return to full strength in 2023, she’s a player many couldn’t slow even when she wasn’t at her best. — Voepel
How did Griner’s game look similar or different in her lone exhibition game last Friday, when she had 10 points and three rebounds?
There were plenty of glimpses of the Brittney Griner of old, the one who was part of the MVP conversation in 2021 — when, quite frankly, she probably should have won it — during her 17 minutes in the Mercury’s final preseason game May 12.
Her spin move was still unguardable. Her game within 8 feet, both with her back to the basket and when she faced up, didn’t look much different. Her two-player game with Phoenix’s guards was just as seamless. She was consistent (6 of 8) free throws. Her shot was still smooth.
Is Griner the same player she was? No, and she’ll admit it. She didn’t finish around the rim as well as she had in the past (2 of 5 from field), which seemed more a product of rust than anything. It was hard to grade her defense because, as she said after the preseason game, she “didn’t guard anybody today.” Her assessment was perhaps a bit overblown, but her size was still a force in the paint. She was beat down the lane more than she would’ve liked, but Griner knows that’s an area she needs to improve on Friday night.
There were times last week when it looked like Griner hadn’t played a competitive game in more than a year and a half. There were also times she looked like she’s back to her old self. The reality is somewhere in between. — Weinfuss
Physically, what will be Griner’s biggest struggles (either now or as the season progresses)?
In short, the grind. She last experienced the day-in, day-out routine of a season in early 2022 in Russia before she was detained. Griner’s last game for her former Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, was Jan. 29, 2022. Her last game for the Mercury was Oct. 17, 2021, in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals. It’s been a minute.
It’s one thing to work out and practice, and sure, she’s been at it since getting home in December. But being on a court alone, or in a small group, or even in full scrimmages can’t replicate the grind of practice, games and travel — whether she ends up flying commercial with the team or private charters for security concerns — that’s on rinse-and-repeat for months.
There’s no doubt Griner’s body will take a beating in the paint every night and, after not experiencing the banging under the boards for a while, it will take time for her to get used to it again. Recovery will be as important for Griner as it’s ever been. Rest days will be necessary. Soreness will need to be managed.
Eventually, Griner will get back to her pre-detainment tolerance for the grind, especially when the emotional toll starts to wear off. The first few games, or even the first few weeks, will have the added element of that emotion as well as the extra attention. At some point, there won’t be as many cameras at practices and games. Then she might start feeling like basketball is just basketball again. — Weinfuss
How do you expect Griner’s presence to help the Mercury this season?
We’re already seeing it and the season hasn’t even started. Just her being around the team has raised the Mercury’s spirits. There’s a sense of relief that Griner is here, is home, is where her teammates can see her and hug her and high-five her and talk to her face to face. That’s led to more positivity and more smiles. There’s not a cloud of concern and unknown hovering over this team anymore like there was last season while Griner was locked up in Russia.
One common refrain about Griner has long been that she’s both a connector and the calming presence on the team. How that translates to the court is still yet to be seen but we should consider the impact of her presence on the court as well.
Having the best center in the world as an option on the block and protecting the rim will change the Mercury’s dynamic nearly 180 degrees from a year ago. They won’t have to rely on smaller lineups anymore, they can play inside-outside, they can take more risks on defense and dump the ball into Griner and let her work. A Griner at 75 or 80% is still probably better than most players inches shorter than her at 100%. — Weinfuss
Griner is known as an exceptional teammate. And after a really hard 2020 season when she ended up leaving the COVID-19 bubble in Bradenton, Florida, before the season ended, Griner spoke openly in 2021 about how she worked on her mental health. She came back in 2021 even more focused on how to relate to her teammates and support them. There are so many reasons why Griner was missed last season, and the friend she was to her teammates was a big one. — Voepel
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