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Brittney Griner: Unfinished Business

ByWill Morgan|@fowillmorgan| April 26, 2021
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Brittney Griner is one of the most dominant players to take the court. The 6’9” icon with an 86-inch wingspan and size 17 shoe has won at every level she’s ever played. She has been at the forefront of social movements, shaped the public perception of the WNBA’s politics since the day she was drafted, and played some pretty great ball too. 

Brittney has done it all, and could reasonably coast for the rest of her professional career. But right now, with the game changing around her, her team taking one more shot at glory, and her publicly addressing her struggle with mental health issues, she is taking control and writing the story of her legacy. She’s secured her place in the history books and if all goes according to plan, it looks like she may be able to write herself a storybook ending.

Brittney’s awards and accolades could take up several pages. She’s won championships everywhere she’s played: high school, college, the WNBA, the Olympics, and internationally. She’s led the WNBA seven times in blocked shots and has been the scoring champion twice. In 2012 she was an NCAA champion, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and the AP Player Of The Year. 

Brittney Griner may be best known for dunks and her defensive prowess. She’s averaged almost 3 blocks per game for her WNBA career. And as the W has opened up, she has shown she’s perfectly capable of switching onto a smaller wing, staying with the player on the drive, and sending their shot into the 10th row. She went viral in high school for a dunk compilation video and caused a ruckus in her first WNBA game by throwing down two slams with ease.

Brittney has also attracted publicity, some wanted and some not so much, away from the court. She has been a vocal advocate at the forefront of social movements, pushing athletics at large towards social justice and reforms. She has also made mistakes for which she has paid the price. Then there’s that infamous offer from Mark Cuban. Brittney is a lightning rod for attention. 

But there’s so much more behind the highlights. Brittney is a complex athlete standing at a crossroads and the future seems uncertain. Let’s break down how we got here and what might be next.

Brittney Griner’s basketball evolution

Brittney Yevette Griner was born in Houston, Texas to Sandra and Raymond Griner. At 10 pounds, 11 ounces, she was the biggest baby born at St. Joseph Hospital that day. Sandra at 5’8” and Raymond at 6’2” certainly aren’t short, but no one saw young Brittney eventually shooting up to 6 feet and 9 inches. 

Houston was a basketball town, with the Comets taking home the WNBA’s first four championships and the city playing host to several legendary centers. But despite this, early on, the young Brittney was focused on volleyball and soccer. She was a varsity volleyball player as a 6-foot tall freshman at Nimitz high school.

It wasn’t long before Nimitz basketball coach Debbie Jackson saw Brittney playing, and suggested she try out for the team. Even with no basketball experience, she made the freshman team and after six games into the season, she moved up to varsity. That year she averaged 10.2 points and took home all district honors.

The next season, Brittney began double-dipping at practice: she would practice with her team and then when it was time to switch gyms, she would stay and practice with the boy’s squad. She also began working out with one of the Nimitz football coaches in the weight room to build her leg strength. Brittney had dunking on her mind. 

In her sophomore year, only her third year playing organized basketball, Brittney averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. She was also dunking on a regular basis at this point. Nimitz was winning games, and Brittney was dominating all over the court, but the stands were full everywhere she went because people wanted to see her dunk. One particularly nasty dunk in that year’s playoffs was the number 3 highlight one night on “SportsCenter.”

Brittney also began to see a physical part of the game that she still battles with. Many of the game’s biggest players feel they are officiated differently than their peers and that defenses get away with practically tackling them, while every bump they commit is whistled for a foul.

It’s a complaint Brittney has voiced and it’s a tactic opposing teams have taken advantage of. In 2008 we saw the beginnings of Brittney’s struggle with this part of her game during a club basketball tournament in Galveston, when after taking a stray kick to the head, Brittney ran up the court and knocked a girl out.

Her senior year, Brittney continued to improve. In 2009 she averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 8.4 blocks, 2.6 assists, and 2.6 steals. Nimitz high school basketball was ranked 24th in the nation by RivalsHigh and Brittney was named the number one high school player and the nation’s top recruit.

Brittney dunked 52 times in 32 games as a senior, setting a single-game record of seven dunks against Aldine High School. On November 11, 2008, she had 25 blocks in a game against Houston Alief Hastings, the most ever recorded at that point by a female in a high school game in the US. In her 2008–09 season, she recorded 318 blocks, a single season record.

It was also that year that a highlight video of her dunking went viral on YouTube. The clips quickly racked up several million views and caught the attention of Shaquille O’Neal who arranged to meet the high school senior when he was in Houston. When Brittney saw the video that took the internet by storm, she said, “They made a big deal out of this? They should come to practice every day.”

Houston mayor Bill White declared May 7, 2009 to officially be Brittney Griner Day.

Brittney Griner’s Baylor college basketball career

Brittney committed to play college ball at Baylor University under head coach Kim Mulkey in Waco, Texas, only a few hours drive from Houston and already a basketball powerhouse having won the NCAA title in 2005.

While Nimitz was a nationally ranked high school, the skill level of the competition and teammates could not compare to a college team with eyes on competing for a national championship. Brittney had developed skills at a rapid clip, but still heavily relied on her raw strength and size to simply overpower those around her. At Baylor, Brittney began to develop the finesse aspects of her game; her go-to moves on the baseline, her hook, and her deep-set pivot. She also came to be a better overall defender, with a better understanding of help defense. 

Brittney was quick to establish her presence at Baylor, recording the school’s first triple-double with 34 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 blocked shots early in her freshman campaign. Her freshman season she averaged 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 6.4 blocks per game. Baylor had strong NCAA tournament showings every year Brittney played, making the Final Four twice and winning it all in 2012. 

In Baylor’s 2012 NCAA championship season Brittney averaged 23.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 5 blocks per game. That year she was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

For her college career, Brittney owns the all-time NCAA Division I career records for blocked shots (748) and dunks (18) and ranks third for points (3,283). While she played for them, Baylor compiled a 135-15 record (.900). 

But under the accolades and success, there were struggles. The violence that had popped up in high school once again appeared during Brittney’s time at Baylor. During her freshman year she was suspended two games, one by the NCAA and an additional game by coach Mulkey for breaking an opposing player’s nose with a punch. Brittney was apologetic and said all the right things in the aftermath, but a pattern had been established.

Also, a shadow related to her experience was retroactively cast over Brittney’s college career while she was doing her press interviews after being selected number one overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA draft. Brittney came out of the closet and casually mentioned that she was gay in interviews with USA Today and with SI.com. In a follow-up interview with ESPN The Magazine Brittney dropped the bomb that Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because it would hurt recruiting and look bad for the program. 

“It was a recruiting thing,” Brittney said, “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

At the time, Baylor, a private Baptist school, had the following in their student handbook: “Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.”

Brittney’s statements brought out former Baylor players such as Sheila Lambert to defend Kim Mulkey. But Brittney was simply stating how her personal situation played out at the time, not passing any judgement on Kim Mulkey’s character. Brittney still praises Kim Mulkey as a coach that deserves more credit than she gets.

Brittney Griner’s WNBA basketball career

Brittney does everything as big as she is, and making the leap from college to the number one draft pick in the pros was no exception. When Brittney was getting ready to enter the WNBA, attention-loving Shark Tank cast member Mark Cuban started tweeting about having Brittney try out for the Dallas Mavericks. Ultimately it seems as if it were a Mark Cuban play for Twitter clout, and Brittney put her focus on her professional debut. 

The WNBA focused its attention on Brittney as well. Brittney joined players like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in having a league change its rules in anticipation for her. Prior to her debut, the WNBA introduced a new defensive 3-second rule, prohibiting players from camping out in the lane. It would be an adjustment, but as Brittney had shown, she was adept at learning on the fly.

Even with the new rule, Brittney averaged 3 blocks per game for the Phoenix Mercury in her rookie season. That combined with 6.4 rebounds and 12.6 points per game was enough to get her selected to her first All Star game, although she was unable to play due to injury. 

In her next season, Brittney was able to settle in and find a groove with WNBA and Mercury legend Diana Taurasi. Sandy Brondello came in as head coach and instilled new sets that almost aped the vaunted triangle offense in some instances, taking advantage of Diana Taurasi’s range and ability to finish at the rim off of drives and Brittney’s emerging ability to run and initiate the offense through the low post. 

That 2014 campaign saw Brittney play all 34 games and improve her numbers across the board. Brittney finished the regular season with 15.6 points, 3.8 blocks, and 8 rebounds per game. She took her shooting percentage from .556 to .578 percent and got her free-throw percentage above .800 for the first time in her career. Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, and Candice Dupree led the Mercury to a WNBA record of 29–5 that year and swept the Chicago Sky in the Finals on their way to the title. Brittney Griner and the Mercury have been chasing 2014 ever since. 

Brittney continued improving her game, in 2015 leading the league in blocked shots with 4 a game. And then seeing an offensive explosion in 2017 leading the league in scoring and averaging a career high 21.7 points a game. 

Brittney would lead the league in scoring once again in 2019 with 20.7 points a game. Even with the new offensive output, Brittney Griner led the league in blocks for seven consecutive seasons. She holds the record for most blocks in a game at 11 and is third on the WNBA all time blocks list, first among active players. 

Despite all the accolades, Brittney has had trouble follow her in the league. In 2019, Brittney had a three-game suspension which she vocally opposed following her role in a fight between Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings players. And in an incident that caused Brittney to step back in self examination, she was suspended for seven games at the start of the 2015 season stemming from a domestic abuse charge between her and her partner at the time, fellow WNBA star Glory Johnson. Glory Johnson and Brittney Griner’s marriage has since been annulled.

In 2020, Phoenix refreshed its ‘big 3’ by adding superstar Skylar Diggins-Smith to Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, but expectations have not yet been met. And after leaving the WNBA bubble and finishing her season early to attend to mental health issues, Brittney Griner and the Mercury’s fates remain intertwined.

Brittney Griner’s Team USA basketball evolution

Brittney was one of the 21 finalists on the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team. She was the youngest and only roster member still playing in college. But ultimately she had to bow out of the 2012 Olympics due to family illness and her school schedule.

Brittney came back strong for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, helping her squad win a gold medal. She has also won two gold medals with Team USA at FIBA Women’s Basketball World Championships in 2014 and 2018, taking the MVP in 2018 as well. 

Today, Brittney is one of only 11 players who have earned an Olympic gold medal, FIBA World Cup gold medal, WNBA title, and NCAA title.

Brittney Griner on the international basketball stage

Brittney played for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls in China during the 2013–14 off-season. The next year she joined her Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi in Russia, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg. Following that, Brittney has returned to Russia every WNBA off-season until the most recent, when international travel was disrupted due to the Coronavirus epidemic. This coming season may be the first one that Brittney has ever come into fully rested.

Let’s take a look at how Brittney works her magic on the court.

Brittney Griner’s go-to moves

1. The block

Brittney has been defined by her defense and her defense has been defined by the block. Most of her career she has been a monster in the lane, eating up anyone that has dared to drive or back her in. But in 2015, her third year playing professionally, Brittney improved her help defense and stepped up her weak side shifting block game. Starting that year, more and more of her blocks were catching people by complete surprise.

2. Dunks

Whether you love them, hate them, or are just indifferent to them, Brittney’s dunks have gotten people talking since her high school days.  It’s the thing people that don’t know the WNBA know her for. She’s a record-setting dunker, which makes sense, because – yeah, she can dunk with ease.

3. Baby hook

Brittney loves to work the baseline and when she is able to catch it down low, where she wants, on the right block, it’s only a one or none dribble move into a soft baby hook that is practically unguardable.

4. Drop step

When she posts on the left block, usually low baseline, a quick drop step is the go-to move. If she’s higher in the key, she’s perfectly willing to call glass. She says she studied Tim Duncan’s game when she first entered the league. It’s like she says “You don’t need a thousand different moves. I’ve tried to get really good at three moves and then build counters off of those.” 

5. The fade from the block

The turnaround jumper from the post is something she goes to a lot, which she pulled from Dirk Nowitzki’s playbook. “That’s his move. When you’re that tall and you’re able to fadeaway it’s hard to get to that. I needed something, I was getting my shot blocked. It’s been a minute since that’s happened.” she told High Post Hoops.

Brittney Griner WNBA stats

Brittney’s WNBA Regular season per game stats

Brittney Griner's per game WNBA statistics
Via Basketball Reference
  • Brittney’s stats have ensured that she spent 4 seasons in the top 10 for field goals, 5 seasons in the top 10 for two-point field goals, and 4 seasons in the top 10 for free throws.
  • On the defensive end, she’s set the tone with 3 seasons in the top 10 for rebounds and 8 seasons in the top 10 for blocks.
  • What also stands out though is her relatively high turnover average, which has only crept up in recent years.

Brittney’s WNBA playoffs per game stats

Brittney does equally well under pressure, averaging 16.5 point per playoff game.

Brittney Griner's WNBA playoff stats per game
Via Basketball Reference
  • Her player efficiency rating has been in the top 10 for 5 seasons, her true shooting percentage has been in the top 10 for 6 seasons, and her effective field goal percentage has been in the top 10 for 5 seasons.
  • She’s spend 3 seasons in the top 10 for her offensive rating, and 2 seasons in the top 10 for her defensive rating.

Brittney Griner WNBA highlights

1. Brittney locks in 38 points

2. Brittney crushing in high school

3. Brittney Griner’s dunks

4. Brittney’s 11 blocks

Brittney Griner’s strengths

1. Defense

No one’s getting an easy bucket in the paint against Brittney. The two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year is arguably the league’s best shot blocker and one of its best rebounders at 7.3 rebounds per game spanning her career.

2. Leadership

When Brittney is at her best, she can be a incredible leader emotionally, defensively, and offensively for stretches. She may not be the single player to build a whole team around, but when she’s engaged and hot, she can anchor any squad of five players on the court and steer them. 

3. Toughness

Imagine knowing every single game they’re coming for you, and with at least two people, and that the refs probably aren’t going to call at least half the hits you get. Brittney Griner has figured out how to get more comfortable with taking a shot in that situation. When she establishes deep post position today, she’s able to finish with finesse, rather than bully ball all the time. She also takes her time, seeing the floor, before making her move, and often sinking it in with her turn-around fadeaway.

Brittney Griner’s areas of opportunity

1. Expanded shooting range shooting

Brittney is a veteran that still has many prime playing years ahead of her. But the game has been revolutionized around her. Not so long ago, only in 2017, five of the league’s top six scorers operated out of the low post. Two years later, the 2019 WNBA champion Mystics took 36 percent of their shots from behind the arc during the Finals.

The “3-point revolution” has touched every single aspect of basketball and the WNBA is moving towards positionless players that can create mismatches off the switch. Not every team can have a Breanna Stewart, but every team can move their posts to the wing to create floor space allowing players like Diana Taurasi to operate. Diana, by the way, has embraced the 3-point/advanced stats talk and virtually cut the mid-range jumper out of her game, focusing on threes and layups resulting in some of her most efficient shooting seasons. 

Brittney will alway be most dangerous down low, but to keep the defense honest and to increase the superstar years of her career, she will have to be able to knockdown open jumpers from long range on a kick out now and then. Brittney has slowly started to add this aspect to her game, taking her first 3-point attempt in 2018. Lifetime regular season, she’s 2 for 8.

2. Staying engaged

Brittney is one of the most dominant players in the game. But, between those jaw-dropping feats of dominance, she has been prone to mental lapses. When she shines, it’s because she’s staying mentally tough. “I think she’s just been a little bit more focused on the mental side of things,” Diana Tuarasi told High Post Hoops when asked about Brittney’s improvement throughout six seasons in the WNBA.

But throughout her career she’s been drawn into fights resulting in suspensions. She plays with passion and has her teammates’ backs, which is great. She just can’t allow herself to be pulled in by petty stuff from opponents and uneven officiating.

More concerning has been her recent lapses on defense. Brittney’s bread and butter has been the defensive intensity that she brings to the game. But, it was distressingly obvious that the Mercury were playing better D in 2020 when Brittney was absent, energized by their young forward Brianna Turner.

Not only that, but when we step back from her amazing block numbers, and take a look at her advanced stats, it doesn’t look good. 2018 shows the dominant Brittney we know, but in 2019 opponents actually had a better offensive rating with her on the court than when she sat. Per 100 possessions, opponents scored 100.2 points with Brittney on the bench. With her in the game, the opponent’s number went to 106.3. Teams were scoring 6.1 more points on average with Brittney Griner in the game.

Brittney Griner off the court

Brittney has not been shy about being a voice in the call for social justice nor about speaking her mind about who she is and what is right. She made that much clear early in her career when she publicly came out after college and before playing her first WNBA game, which made her the first public LGBTG athlete signed to an endorsement deal with Nike.

In the years since she has spoken out on the murder of Breonna Taylor, wearing her name on her jersey, the national anthem, and the gender pay gap. Most recently, Brittney has spoken about the issues surrounding mental health and seeking help, which will only go to strengthen her further as a person, public figure, and as a player.

The questions ahead

Brittney Griner told Michelle Voepel that seeking treatment for mental health was very important in her return to basketball and is the reason she’s now feeling much better.

“With everything that was going on, everything I was dealing with, I just needed to take that leave,” Brittney said. “I’ve never been shy [about] saying I definitely used counseling a lot when I left, and it’s helped me out tremendously. I think more people should be open to talking about mental health issues. Instead of holding in so much.”

“It’s done wonders for me. I’m in a place now where I feel amazing. I took that time to work on my body as well. The rehab on my knee and other parts of my body. I’m feeling good and ready to go now.”

And we’re excited to see the impact she’ll make – renewed and refreshed – this season. Brittney Griner’s dominance can’t be understated. She’s an all-timer. But, right now, she’s working out where she’s going to land on that list. She’s won at every single level; pushed teams to titles and received individual accolades; and excelled on the defensive end of the court and the offensive end, setting numerous records while collecting rewards.

So will that be her story, ending as an icon that set the league on fire, but eventually the game changed and passed her by? Or will it be the dominant player that mastered the game so quickly was able to adjust while confronting issues she’s dealt with for years, emerges on the other side an even better, more dominant player for years to come? We’re ready to see. And Brittney, as always, is ready to hoop.

Up next, learn more about Brittney’s new Phoenix Mercury teammate Kia Nurse.

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