Griner getting comfortable with new city, team, role

PHOENIX – The only WNBA player with an above-the-rim profile has been experiencing interludes of big-league turbulence.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Brittney Griner said, “but I was a little freaked out by it.”

Instead of her team’s unexpected, bothersome 0-3 launch, the “it” she was referencing was the first official, in-person Arizona dust storm witnessed by the Phoenix Mercury rookie. And to make these weather issues seem even worse, this massive trail of dust arrived on the blistered heels of Griner’s introduction to 118-degree weather.

That wasn’t much of a problem, either.

“Honestly, when we went to San Antonio,” the Texas native and ex-Baylor University superstar said earlier this week, “it was like, ‘Oh, my God … send me back to Phoenix.’ It had gotten so humid down there.

“I had gotten used to that dry, hair-blower heat, y’know?”

Oh, we know. And we’re also aware that towering dust storms and cartoon-caliber heat probably register as minor when compared to the career-opening challenges of high-level competition, even-higher-level expectations and the lack of cooperation from a balky knee.

Griner, whose arrival has generated more interest/curiosity than the WNBA has mustered in its history, knew even more “it” was coming. But this particular “it” was pretty much what she expected for the start of her pro career.

“Actually, it has been,” she said after a recent Mercury practice. “I knew it (pro basketball) was going to be a higher level, which it has been. I knew the games will be harder … they are. The competition level, the skill is just totally at a different level.”

But now that Griner and her knee are up to six-minutes-per-quarter shifts, Phoenix (riding five victories in a row) has rallied and checks in at 8-4 overall heading into Sunday’s game at reigning Western Conference champ Minnesota. That’s a level of difference WNBA observers anticipated when last season’s injury-riddled Mercury landed the first selection in the draft.

“She’s learning every night because, basically, teams are giving her different looks, giving us different looks,” coach Corey Gaines said.

Gaines, who had attempted to alter his attacking schemes to fit Griner rather than teach the rookie to adjust to her teammates, quickly retreated to simple, familiar tactics after the 0-3 start. So instead of finding ways to implement the most imposing post presence the league has ever seen, Gaines is mostly using the threat of Griner to make life easier for her teammates.

“We’ve been running stuff that looks like it’s for her,” Gaines said, “but the guard (often Diana Taurasi) gets the shot. It’s just misdirection.”

This Griner-as-a-decoy strategy is just fine with Brittney, who’s giving Phoenix 15.5 points (making 62 percent of her field-goal attempts), 6.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in a modest 25.7 minutes per game.

“I need to be a force in the paint,” Griner said. “Just get my little points in the paint, rebound, get people open …

“The first couple games … uhhh, not so good. But after that, I started to get comfortable. I started to have more confidence in myself.”

To some, the need to re-establish confidence might seem anathema for someone whose early imprint on her sport has been so profound. But Griner hit town with a few concerns about how she’d fit in with a team that already features so many veteran stars.

“They’ve accepted me,” she said. “It’s been good. I was worried, though. I heard stories, people told me things like, ‘Oh, the veterans are gonna get you,’ but it’s been good.

“It’s different when you’re part of a team like this … you don’t want to mess up. You want to do right. You don’t want to do too much, so it’s like trying to find that balance.”

Balancing on-court expectations with assimilation into an established team culture is challenge enough without the accompanying off-court hullabaloo. Even though she doesn’t apologize for being forthcoming in regard to her sexuality or interest in a controversial employment overture by an NBA owner, Griner has been obligated to field the subsequent attention.

“It’s tough because she’s getting pulled from TV, magazines, interviews …” Gaines said. “Everywhere we go, they want her after games, before the game. She’s handling it well, but she’s starting to get tired.

“Any normal person would get tired. It’s just taking time for her to get the balance of doing everything.”

It helps that professional life does not include certain non-basketball demands.

“The appearances after games in other venues have been different,” Griner said. “I wasn’t used to that. And the traveling can be hard.

“But I have a lot of time to myself now. You don’t have to worry about study hall anymore … that’s awesome. I’m telling you, I love it.”

With her down time in red-hot Phoenix, Brittney chills as much as geographically possible by skateboarding, providing a proper home life for her pet snakes Audi and Sage and making frequent trips to Hillstone (she’s a fan of the Hawaiian rib-eye).

“I love Phoenix, honestly,” she said. “It’s awesome.”

And the sentiment from Phoenix seems to be reciprocal. Despite the slow start, interest has been sky-higher than 6-foot-8. With the Mercury’s recent rise, there’s no telling how far above the rim this following is going to rise.

“We’re getting there,” Griner said. “We just keep gettin’ better, and goin’ the way it’s been goin’ … it’s going to be amazing.”

Yeah, just like monsoon season.