Mercury embrace Griner as player, person

PHOENIX – The most relevant observation during the official Brittney Griner media meet and greet on Saturday was provided by Phoenix Mercury coach Corey Gaines.

“A moving target is harder to hit,” said Gaines, quite possibly the happiest man in Phoenix this week.

Gaines was referring to screen-roll as a method of keeping the 6-foot-8 Griner in defense-threatening motion en route to the rim. With perimeter weapons that start – but certainly don’t end – with superstar Diana Taurasi, there are tactics Gaines can muster to prevent opposing teams from providing a lane-crowding level of discomfort for the most imposing player ever selected in the WNBA draft.

“It’s a unique situation for me to come to a team with so many great players,” Griner said.

That’s so true. Although a player widely considered capable of becoming the most dominant in women’s basketball never will be immune from the pressure her potential represents, she’s fortunate to be in Phoenix.

But that also may be true for reasons other than basketball.

Despite the impact Griner already has had on her sport, she’s generated more national attention off the court this month than in four years of elite play at Baylor.

After the Mercury made her incredibly-likely selection official five days earlier, Griner’s sexuality produced the most national headlines. In a pre-draft interview with USA Today, Griner referred to being gay while saluting her parents for encouraging self-acceptance at a young age.

And by just being herself a couple of weeks earlier, Griner became the focus of conjecture regarding the notion of playing in the NBA.

So with different avenues of her life and career capable of steering a press conference away from basketball, none of the peripheral issues was mentioned on the day Griner met Phoenix’s fourth estate. And her presence attracted some local media heavy hitters rarely seen at basketball events the last few years.

Three days after his Suns season grinded to a halt, Mercury owner Robert Sarver checked in, too. Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby was part of the organizational show of force, joking that he was hoping “some karma” would rub off for use in next month’s NBA draft lottery.

So with this registered as a Mercury day of celebration, perhaps it just wasn’t the proper time for hardball inquiries. But this particular place should enable Griner to go about her basketball career with (relatively) minimal distraction. While the local WNBA franchise doesn’t exist within an Arizona vacuum, the lack of hometown confrontation should make her transition easier.

Even though Griner didn’t retreat from any potentially challenging inquiries in the past weeks – actually welcoming the attention lobbed her way by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban – she seemed soft-spoken and humble in her first presser here.   

By being different while growing up to 6-8, Griner became sensitive to similar issues faced by kids now. Her expressed interest in working with anti-bullying programs inspired a visit and tribute from Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton, who kicked off the Mercury press gathering.

Franchise president Amber Cox followed, revealing that – as expected – Mercury season tickets are hot items and the franchise’s website has been clicking like never before.

Cox also pointed out that Griner’s considerable basketball ability is no match for her qualities as a person.

Gaines took his turn and reminded the X-and-O crowd that Brittney will command a level of defensive attention that can make the fast-paced Mercury even more versatile.

After Monday’s draft, Gaines said her ability to block shots and control the defensive boards should enable the already-fast paced Mercury to play at an even higher tempo.

“See, people don’t understand that,” Gaines said. “They think she’s only going to be used as a defensive player. Yeah, she’s a defensive player, but she gives us more rebound and outlets, which makes us a faster team.

“The first part of the fast break is the defensive rebound.”

As for Griner, the quick-paced system – which Gaines adopted while working as an assistant to coach Paul Westhead – is fine by her.

“This big girl likes to run,” she said.

She also looks forward to playing in the WNBA, where new lane-clearing rules should make her feel a lot less occupied by defenders than at Baylor.

“I’m definitely looking forward to that,” Griner said. “Especially defensive three seconds.”

So with an unusually bad, injury-compromised season creating a draft bonanza for a franchise with two WNBA crowns, Brittney Griner has a team that can help her ease toward the considerable expectations.

“We’ve always had expectations,” Gaines said after Monday’s draft. “I think when we won the first one (championship), 10 minutes didn’t go by until Robert (Sarver) said, ‘How many more can we win?’

“It’s always been that way. That’s how it is.”

And even though Griner appears comfortable with the idea of playing to her immediate strengths on a loaded team, she also seems eager to prepare to take on the challenges her status has engendered.

 “I wish I could move in tomorrow and start playing,” she said. “I hope I can live up to everything.”

With so much potential to be impactful in and away from basketball, there’s never a complete avoidance of pressure. Not even in Phoenix.

But Griner’s still fortunate to be taking her first steps toward professional stardom – and all of its obligations – right here.