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Brianna Turner: Off-Court Advocate Turned On-Court All-Defense

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| July 21, 2021
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Brianna Turner has described herself as quiet. But there are moments where she is unapologetically loud. Already during her college days at Notre Dame, she and her teammates wore shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” as a way to protest police violently killing Eric Garner. More recently, Brianna has been outspoken on topics in addition to police brutality, such as gender equity in sports, and trans athletes rights. 

During her second year in the WNBA, she rose to the forefront of the news as she addressed her unique perspective on police brutality on ESPN’s SportsCenter — her parents are police officers — and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“Talking about it in general. Why does it keep happening? Why is it happening all across our country? Is it an issue with the training? Is it an issue with maybe racial bias? Obviously, there are a lot of factors at play here. So just obviously I’m in a different position than a lot of people. I lived in a house with two law enforcement officers, so it’s definitely good to hear their side and obviously hearing my perspective. I see a lot of stuff on social media, and they’re literally living through it on the opposite side. I think it’s good to get both those perspectives.” Brianna said.

Brianna has also become an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a non-profit that advocates for the equal treatment of LGBTQ+ people in sports.

“It’s important to educate yourself on terms related to gender and pronouns. It’s also good to follow transgender athletes or organizations that support transgender athletes on social media so you can stay up to date on the latest information.” Brianna said in an interview with Athlete Ally.

“Above all though, be kind. Because you never know what someone else could be going through.”

Brianna is just as impressive on the basketball court as she is off of it. Known for her defensive tenacity, in just her second year in the league she was named to the 2020 WNBA All-Defensive First Team.

“I’ve always had a passion for defense,” she said. “Always wanting to get a stop, go the other way. I know every night is going to be a difficult challenge. I’ve accepted the challenge of guarding those type of players.”

But how did Brianna become the defensive juggernaut that she is today?

Brianna Turner’s basketball evolution 

Brianna Turner grew up in Pearland, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where she was born into a family of athletes. Both of her parents played collegiate basketball, so sports were at the heart of her home. She played soccer and did competitive swimming up until age 11, but basketball was the sport she loved. Brianna started playing basketball at her local YMCA at the age of five. By age nine she joined her first travel AAU team.

Brianna Turner in high school

Freshman year of high school, Brianna attended Westbury Christian where her team won a state championship. But Brianna opted to transfer to Manvel High School the following season. In her career at Manvel, she averaged a double-double in points and rebounds. In her senior year she led Manvel to a class 5-A State Title over Texas powerhouse Duncanville high; she finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds and was named the MVP of the game.

“Brianna probably has the most versatile skill set of the two or three best players in the country,” said Dan Olson of espnW HoopGurlz and the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. “She brings a 6-foot-4 body frame with length along with that incredible versatility. This kid can handle and create havoc in mismatch situations. She’s going to be a great college player and is a very articulate, well-spoken girl. She’s a real talent.”

She was four time all-team district, two-time defensive player of the year, named the 2014 Gatorade National Player of the Year award, and MVP of the 2014 McDonald’s All-American Game. Over the course of her high school career she averaged (both schools): 21.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocks, 3.1 steals, and 3.0 assists. Her dominance on the offensive and defensive end led her to be the number one ranked women’s basketball recruit in the nation.

Brianna Turner in college at Notre Dame

Brianna chose to play at Notre Dame under coach Muffet McGraw. “When I visited Notre Dame I had this really good feeling,” Brianna said in an interview with Bridget B. on the One and One podcast, “it’s one I hadn’t had at other places. A week later I verbally committed.”

Brianna Turner’s freshman year

Brianna arrived in South Bend and immediately made an impact. She started in 35 of 36 games played, and averaged 13.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game with 10 double-doubles, leading the team in all categories except scoring and steals. She led the nation in field-goal percentage at 65.2%, becoming just the third freshman in NCAA history to do so. After a tremendous showing in the NCAA tournament, averaging 15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks with a 59.1 field-goal percentage, Brianna was named to the Final Four All-Tournament team to cap off her season.

Brianna Turner’s sophomore year

In the off-season before her sophomore season, Brianna had surgery on a lingering shoulder issue forcing her to miss the first month of games. But once she returned, she looked like she never missed a beat. She averaged 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, led the ACC in field-goal percentage (.652), blocks (2.9 per game), and won ACC player and defensive player of the year awards. 

Brianna Turner’s junior year 

For the first time in her collegiate career, Brianna was able to play and start in all 35 regular season games in which she averaged 28.7 minutes per game. She once again led the ACC in field-goal percentage (61.9) and blocks (2.46 per game), and was named the ACC defensive player of the year for the second straight season. She even had a career-high 38 assists for the season. Brianna and the 33-4 Notre Dame Irish were poised to make a deep NCAA tournament run. But late in the first half of the second round against Purdue, Brianna went down with a knee injury that was later diagnosed as a torn ACL. 

“I definitely knew something was wrong.” Brianna told Bridget B. on the One on One podcast, “I wasn’t really in excruciating pain, but then once our trainer came over, I could just look into her eyes. I could just tell from her eyes that it was probably an ACL.” 

It was a devastating loss for the Irish as Brianna was the team’s leading scorer with 17.3 points per game and rebounder with 7.1 rebounds per game. Notre Dame would eventually lose to Stanford in the Elite Eight

Brianna Turner’s redshirt season

Brianna’s torn ACL would sideline her for the entirety of her senior season. At the time, she didn’t want every bit of her rehab documented and didn’t want to conduct interviews on her status. Rather she preferred going through rehab on her own to escape the additional frustration of the same questions being asked about whether she was ready yet.

Instead she did her best to control what she could and stay positive. “Just maintaining that positive mindset and knowing that this wasn’t a career-ending injury,” Brianna said of how she coped. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m on crutches. I can’t run yet, I can’t jump yet, but I’m looking forward to the next step.’”

Admittedly though, it wasn’t an easy year. “It was definitely frustrating,” Brianna said of her extended layoff as the rest of the Irish played on. “This is obviously the longest I’ve gone without playing since I started basketball as a kid, but it was still fun, still remarkable to see the resiliency of our team last year, their fight and how tough they were as they persevered through all the adversity we faced.”

The 2018 Notre Dame women’s basketball team went on to win the NCAA championship that season (thanks to the magic of Arike Ogunbowale).

“Even though I wasn’t playing, I was just so excited to be a part of the journey,” Brianna told Bridget B., “I would definitely say it was a roller coaster season- we had one of the worst losses ever to Louisville… and we lost to them in the ACC tournament, and then to come back and have that finish, Arike hit those two shots… it was just so exciting to be a part of that.”

Brianna Turner’s graduate season 

Rather than enter her name into the 2018 WNBA Draft, Brianna chose to stay at Notre Dame for the 2018-2019 season and complete her sixth year and final year of NCAA eligibility with the team. She was more than ready to hit the floor again. “I’m going to go out there and play,” Brianna said. “If I get hurt again, I get hurt again, but I’m not about to play scared.”

She finished her final college season in historic fashion – as the school’s all-time rebounds leader with 1,048 career rebounds. She also was the school’s all-time blocks leader with 372 career blocks, and she won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time. 

Notre Dame made it to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament where they would take on rival University of Connecticut. It was a back and forth battle that came down to the final minute. With 30 seconds left, Notre Dame was up by three points. It appeared that UConn’s Napheesa Collier was about to score a layup to put the Huskies within one. But Brianna made a quick rotation to make a left-handed stuff block that would ultimately seal Notre Dame’s win, securing a spot as one of the top clutch plays in Notre Dame women’s basketball history. 

“I was really just trying to contest it at that point,” Brianna told The Athletic inside the locker room. “I was trying to make it a hard shot, whether I blocked it or not. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want a wide-open layup, so I have to contest it.’ Luckily, I was able to get a hand on it.”

“I honestly didn’t feel the magnitude. I just knew we were up three points.”

After that, Notre Dame lost to Baylor in the title game. Along with the other four starters of Notre Dame’s 2018-2019 team, Brianna entered her name into the 2019 WNBA Draft.

Brianna Turner in the WNBA 

While sitting in her apartment at Notre Dame, Brianna was drafted 11th overall by the Atlanta Dream in the 2019 WNBA Draft. But was traded just a few minutes later to the Phoenix Mercury

“I was real excited to get drafted by Atlanta. And then I was watching, and a few minutes later a little banner on the bottom said that I had been traded to Phoenix. So, I hadn’t even processed the trade by Atlanta in that time yet, so I was excited to go to Phoenix. “ Brianna told Lyndsey D’Arcangelo.

Leading up to the start of the season Diana Taurasi said in an interview with The Athletic, “Brianna Turner is probably the wild card. This kid has so much ability, that she is barely scratching the surface.”

With the belief of Diana and the rest of the Mercury behind her, Brianna had a solid rookie season. The Mercury finished the year with a 15-19 record, and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after being ravaged with injuries all season long. However, the circumstances led to more playing time and early development opportunities for Brianna. 

Brianna started 12 of 29 games where she averaged 4.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, and just under a block a game. Her 4.1 rebounds per game put her third amongst all rookies for the 2019 season. In an elevated role later in the season, she averaged 6.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks in her last 14 games of the season. She was named to the WNBA All-Rookie team alongside Napheesa Collier, Teaira McCown, and former Notre Dame teammates Jackie Young and Arike Ogunbowale.

At the conclusion of her first WNBA season, Brianna followed Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello to Australia, playing for the Adelaide Lightning in the WNBL. She had a strong season, averaging a double with 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. She finished second in MVP voting behind her eventual Mercury teammate, Kia Nurse

Brianna Turner’s 2020 WNBA season

Thanks to the hard work of the WNBA and WNBPA, the 2020 season was able to go forth in Bradenton, Florida, in what would become known as the ‘wubble’, even with the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest happening across the country. 

Brianna’s role with the Mercury increased during her sophomore season, especially once teammate Brittney Griner left the wubble for personal reasons, and she stepped up to the plate. Brianna started all 22 games for Phoenix, averaging 7.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game.

Her overall rebound average of 9.0 per game set the franchise record, and her 21 rebounds against the Connecticut Sun on September 9th, set a team record for number of rebounds in a single game. Brianna was one of only two WNBA players, along with 2020 league MVP A’ja Wilson, to average at least 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game that season.

“It’s like a flower, she’s kind of blossomed since BG left,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said to The Next. “She knows the responsibility that she brings to this team.”

Brianna’s efforts were rewarded by being named to the 2020 WNBA All-Defensive first team. 

“I really pride myself on defense,” she said. “And even before the season, one of my goals was to make it on to one of the defensive teams. So, I was really excited when I got selected.”

The Mercury finished 5th in the W with a 13-9 record. After winning a thriller in the first round of the playoffs off a Shey Peddy buzzer beating three-pointer, Phoenix would ultimately lose to the Minnesota Lynx in the second round.

Brianna was signed to Russian team, Nika Syktyvkar. Where, in her first Russian League season, she averaged 13.8 points and 12.4 rebounds. In a season-ending series for third place, she raised her scoring average to 21 points in three narrow losses to MBA Moscow.

Brianna Turner WNBA career stats 

Brianna Turner's WNBA career stats
Brianna Turner’s WNBA stats via Basketball Reference

Brianna’s numbers took a leap in 2020 with Brittney Griner out most the season. But even this in the 2021 season, her numbers – especially on the defensive end with rebounding and blocks – remain consistent, proving her ability to adjust to her role based on the team’s roster. 

Brianna Turner’s career awards & highlights 

  • 2014 Gatorade National High School female Athlete of the Year
  • 2014 McDonald’s High School All-American Honoree 
  • 2015 ACC Freshman of the Year 
  • 2015 NCAA Women’s Final Four All-Tournament Team
  • 2016 ACC Defensive Player of the Year 
  • 2019 ACC Defensive Player of the Year 
  • 2019 WNBA All-Rookie Team
  • 2020 WNBA All-Defensive Team 

Brianna Turner’s go-to moves 

1. Lay-ups 

It seems simple, but it’s an underrated skill to be able to put yourself in pockets of space to receive passes at the rim, something Brianna is gifted at. She can bulldoze her way to the basket and she is capable of finishing with both her right and left hand for a cutting or driving layup shot or an alley oop layup.

2. Putbacks

For her career, Brianna averages 2.0 offensive rebounds per game. Many of those result in two points, as Brianna is able to track down the ball and control both her body and the ball on follow-up plays.

3. Rim running

You’ll never see a lack of hustle from Brianna. Whether on a made or missed shot from the opponent, she runs straight to the basket, which can create fast break opportunities, or as a trailer, gives her a chance to cut through the lane to score, or puts herself in a position to get an offensive rebound.

Brianna Turner’s strengths 

1. Shot blocking

Shot blocking is Brianna’s bread and butter. Her lateral quickness coupled with her high defensive IQ allows her to block shots without fouling. She’s able to block shots with both her right and left hand, and she has a knack for knowing when to rotate off her woman and help on the shooter. 

2. Rebounding

At  6’3”, 170lbs Brianna is fairly undersized for the role she’s asked to play for the Phoenix Mercury as a rim protector. Despite her lack of height, Brianna has a career average of nearly seven rebounds per game. She collects rebounds at a rate of 13.4%, per the WNBA Stats website. For reference, the all-time WNBA rebounds leader Sylvia Fowles, who is 6’6” and 217 lbs, has a career rebounding rate of 16.7%

3. Cutting to the basket

Yes, Brianna is a beneficiary of great guard play from Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, and Bria Hartley. However, Brianna does well to put herself in positions to receive passes and finish at the rim. She rolls hard to the rim after setting screens, and reads defenses well when her teammates such as Diana or Brittney get doubled, getting herself open for an easy bucket. Furthermore, she has the strength to finish through contact at the basket. 

4. Setting screens

Brianna knows how to set a fundamental, hard screen. She widens her body, sets her feet cleanly, and gets right in the path of the defender. Her screens create significant space and open up the floor, thus giving the guards more options on offense.

5. Attitude 

Brianna is the type of teammate to constantly bolster and praise her fellow teammates in their accomplishments. Whether it’s her engagement on the court or bench, or on Twitter, she maintains a great attitude. 

Brianna Turner’s areas of opportunity 

1. Developing a reliable midrange jumper 

Over the course of Brianna’s WNBA career, 95% of her shot attempts have been within the paint, per Basketball Reference. If Brianna could develop an elbow or a baseline jumpshot, it could create more offensive chances for not just herself, but also could expand the opportunities for a high-low game with Brittney Griner.

Brianna Turner's Field Goals Made Map

2. Free throws

Brianna has a career free-throw percentage of nearly 72%. This season (2021), she is currently at 81%, which shows she has already made immense improvements at the charity stripe. If she can sustain a percentage around 80% or above moving forward, it would make her a deeper threat in games, particularly in late game situations when free throwing shooting is magnified.

What’s next for Brianna?

After the 2021 Olympic break, Brianna and the Phoenix Mercury will look to make a playoff push and compete for their fourth championship. 

She also recently was signed by Russian club Virtus Segafredo Bologna for the upcoming Euroleague season. 

Follow Brianna on Twitter where she shares funny anecdotes, fights for equality, and celebrates the accomplishments of her teammates and friends across the league.

Up next, learn more about her Phoenix Mercury teammates Kia Nurse and Diana Taurasi (plus Diana’s incredible scoring map).

Written by Karlee Worthen, a graduate student in New York City studying Sports Media and Communication. Follow her on Twitter for mediocre sports and movies takes, or News Wubble for all things WNBA. 

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