Mercury's Griner grows into stature as WNBA superstar

Rookie struggle helps Mercury star approach potential.

Rookie struggle helps Mercury star approach potential.

PHOENIX -- The most coveted asset ever to come down the WNBA pike seemed to be steering the message of some well-established advice in her own direction.

"When you reach the top and don't think you can get any better," Mercury All-Star Brittney Griner said, "that's when you get knocked down."

Griner, a potentially unmatched difference-maker at 6-feet-8, was referring to the task of helping her team sustain its roughshod pace. But the getting-knocked-down part also could be interpreted as what occurred between the benediction of her scorched-earth college career and the end of her first professional campaign.

Reality happened. Even though an intrusion from real life should have been anticipated, we often forget that elite-level athletes -- even those with balance-of-power-altering skills -- should be regarded far more for their humanity than any cold, calculated asset value.

So, after reaching the WNBA with messianic marching orders, Griner proved mortal.

There was a pesky knee, the compounded weight of on- and off-court expectations, icy stretches along her learning curve and the challenge of navigating a competitive league that refuses to allow anything to come as easily as it did at Baylor.

But that, thankfully for the Mercury, is in the rearview mirror. And the trademark Griner personality that hit town with her but dimmed during certain interludes of 2013, has returned to illuminate US Airways Center.

 "I'm just getting used to the pro lifestyle," Griner said this week ahead of Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, "and it's going good this year."

Screaming evidence of such is everywhere. Rolling into the All-Star break at 18-3, with wins in their last 12 games, the Mercury offer several variables for such a beginning. From a pragmatic standpoint, however, the change in Griner is difficult to underplay.

"She's just been huge for us," said Diana Taurasi, a teammate with the credentials to make sweeping declarations. "She's a totally different player."

We'll start with some numbers.

Griner didn't exactly stagger through her rookie season. She missed seven games due to injury and had her minutes rationed in many of the others.  When it was over, she averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and three blocks in 25.9 minutes per game.

A year wiser, stronger, more focused and technically proficient, Griner is putting up 15.2, 8.2 and four, respectively, this season. With on-court time often sliced over the course of a Mercury rout, she's now averaging 30 minutes per game.

Her efficiency rating sits at 25.7 (up from 22.4 as a rookie), which puts Griner fourth among all WNBA players. Taurasi is fifth.

WNBA ALL-STAR GAME

Candice Dupree and Diana Taurasi will join Phoenix teammate Brittney Griner on West roster for Saturday's game at 12:30 p.m. at US Airways Center

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"She's just way more confident in her ability," first-year Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. "She's improved from the experience she had in China."

Right, instead of plying her trade in Europe, Griner spent her first pro winter on a more-lucrative hoop landscape in the Far East.

That's a pretty far from Arizona, of course, and light years removed from the flight of fancy suggested by some people (take a bow, Mark Cuban) while Griner's time at Baylor was winding down. You remember the what-if notion of the long, agile and fearless Griner attempting to become the first woman to actually play in an NBA game.

Well, her first WNBA offseason didn't quite go in that direction. It went to China ... but the NBA still was involved, sort of.

Enter Dean Demopoulos, a basketball-coaching lifer who had been out of a full-time job since being let go by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2012. Demopoulos, who became something of an expert on zone-defense application while cutting his teeth as John Chaney's top assistant at Temple, had been close to landing a bench job with the Milwaukee Bucks.

That didn't happen. But Griner did. Hired as her personal skill-development coach, Demopoulos went to China, too.

"That definitely helped me out a lot," Griner said of her four months with Demopoulos while playing for the Zhejiang Golden Bulls of the WCBA.

Mercury center Brittney Griner blocks the shot of Chicago Sky guard Jamierra Faulkner on July 2, 2014, in Phoenix.

Matt York / AP

With trainer and player operating around a team schedule that reportedly didn't exactly do them any favors, Griner improved her skill level and on-court approach. The immediate results were per-game averages of 24.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks -- all for the sweet remuneration of $600,000.

"I had to grow up a lot," Griner said of living abroad and adjusting to a different basketball culture. "Over there, they went to me a lot. I had to get that mindset to go hard every single game."

With something far beyond go-to-player status and a more harsh approach to basketball from Coach Li Xin, Griner was forced to zero in on her responsibilities. And life off the court wasn't the relative victory lap that most NBA players experience in China.

"I wasn't a rock star," she said, looking embarrassed to even ponder that notion. "They knew who I was ... but I was no rock star there."

By the time she returned to Phoenix, Griner developed obvious upgrades in four key areas: health, focus, skills and pressure release.

"She's just way more confident in her ability," Brondello said. "Her improvement's going to get better every year because it's all about experience. You're always constantly learning."

Sessions with Demopoulos in China created a second-year player with more patience on the block and a greater awareness of where her teammates or help defenders are located on specific sets.

"We worked a lot on the low post," Griner said. "We did footwork, pivoting out of double teams and finding open teammates."

Compared to a year ago, Brittney now operates with a slightly lowered center of gravity to help absorb contact without compromising balance as she begins a post move. And tactical preparation with Brondello allows her to reach post-up position more efficiently.

If she's on the move (a staple in Brondello's offensive philosophy), it's difficult for the post defender to reach the proper angle needed to push her away from that block-area sweet spot.

You also can see Griner now looking for potential double-teaming hot spots before the ball even arrives.

And if the hot spot turns into excessive contact, a couple of tweaks -- and repetition -- have translated into a 10 percent hike (to 82 percent) in her rate of free-throw success.

"Coach (Demopoulos) wouldn't let me leave the gym until I hit 10 in a row," she said.

Although it may return in a different form once the playoffs begin, the stifling crush of attention on Griner has dissipated. Some of it is league-wide familiarity. Most of the gawking was done last year. Her personal revelations have been noted, and people have moved on.

"It's definitely less pressure," Griner said. "There's not all of the media attention every game. Not all of the appearances like there were last year."

With an All-Star turn in Phoenix coming up next, Griner has seized upon lessons learned during her rookie adventure and started to become the player anticipated by the league and her team.

"I think she's gained her confidence back, her aggression in what she wants to do on the court," Taurasi said.

We've reserved the final words for Brondello, who offers the same message that had been delivered by basketball experts since Griner started dominating at Baylor.

"The sky's the limit for her," Brondello said.

A lot of work and maturation were required, but it's nice to have that particular sentiment expressed again.  

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