Griner, Taurasi embrace pairing, Mercury’s future

PHOENIX – They were separated by nine years at the top of the WNBA Draft and about nine minutes in Friday’s media-day lineup for the Phoenix Mercury.

But one day before reaching the practice court for the first time as teammates, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner already were at odds.

“I don’t like it one bit,” Taurasi, the superstar guard who hit town as the messianic overall No. 1 draft choice in 2004, said of possibly ceding some of the media attention to the hotshot rookie.

And Griner, the hotshot rookie, had this to offer when told that Taurasi might impose some sort of dinner-buying initiation fee as the Mercury’s top gun.

“Sure,” the 6-foot-8 super-powerhouse from Baylor said while leaning down and into a microphone on the dais set up at US Airways Center workout gym. “We can go to McDonald’s.”

Is there early trouble in this potential paradise-level, inside-out combination?

Nah. Unlike most of their male counterparts in this professional basketball region, Taurasi and Griner have the fun-loving chops to almost match their considerable skills.

“It’s time!” Taurasi said in regard to Griner’s arrival and subsequent ascension to the top – or at least near it – of WNBA interest/curiosity.

“She’s a young kid,” Taurasi said, “but she’s very mature in a lot of ways. She’s been in the spotlight a long time.”

And how does the spotlight on Griner compare to what was aimed at the veteran back when she was a bright-eyed rook out of UConn?

“A lot taller,” Taurasi said, lifting her right arm to simulate the target area for Griner’s bright lights.

So before getting down to the considerable task of living up to crazy expectations, things are fairly lively on Planet Mercury. Taurasi, back fresh from two championships in Europe, is healthy. And the prognosis is good for the franchise’s other star players who combined to miss several games last season, enabling Phoenix to lose with enough gusto to land a game-changing first overall pick.

And Griner, who represents basketball plutonium in the hands of the savvy Mercury, hit a career-starting jackpot.

“She couldn’t have come to a better place,” Taurasi said.

For on-court, on-the-job appeal, Griner is working with Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner in an up-tempo system supervised by coach Corey Gaines.
Ostensibly built around a low-post threat that – in basic theory – would keep defenders at home while perimeter players went to work, the system lacked the balance almost every coach craves in any style of play.

“Now I have the inside and the outside,” Gaines said.

Griner’s ability to command defensive attention should create a measure of happiness for the Mercury’s shooters, who are sufficiently deadly to prevent a logjam – the league’s new defensive-3-seconds rule will also help – around Brittney.

But off the court, Griner has Taurasi, whose professional experience as a WNBA celebrity casts her as the perfect sounding board.

“I feel like she can help me out, answer any questions I have,” Griner said. “She knows what it takes.”

And what it takes is having an appreciation for the opportunities that lie ahead.

When asked for a key piece of advice she might deliver to the rookie, Taurasi said, “Just to enjoy it. You just have to enjoy every moment.”

Through her light-hearted approach to the task of navigating media day, Griner certainly seems capable of that. But the veteran already was impressed with what the kid accomplished under a relative microscope at Baylor.

“The one thing that stood out is every year she improved,” Taurasi said. “And that’s not easy with games and team practices and school. She found a way to improve her game every year.

“One thing this kid has … it’s tremendous drive. The sky’s the limit for her.”

While she checks in as the missing piece to what could be a masterpiece-caliber puzzle, Griner also arrives with humility.

“No … yes … no,” she joked when asked if being around established WNBA royalty had made her a bit star struck.

But as a self-described late bloomer in basketball – “growing up, I thought I was going to be (skateboard legend) Tony Hawk some day” – Griner has been a quick study on the league history now bumping elbows with her.

“There’s a lot of personality in there,” Griner said, referring to the Mercury locker room. “But when ‘D’ (Diana) got here, it was all over.”

Right, all over as in there being little (if any) doubt regarding who still registers as No. 1 on the leadership board.  

“You look around the locker room and we have some of the best players in the world,” Taurasi said. “But that doesn’t mean much unless we start building something early.

“There’s something to be said about an uncontrollable energy. I think that energy is here.”