PHOENIX — Speaking just moments after the Phoenix Mercury drafted Baylor center Brittney Griner with the first pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft, coach Corey Gaines got right to the point and did nothing to deflate sky-high expectations for his new star.
“She’s definitely going to be a player that changes the game as we know it today,” Gaines said. “I do think that, in time, she will be the best player in the world.”
Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale expressed a similar sentiment, adding that in Diana Taurasi the team already has the current best player in the world.
“Certainly Brittney is a game-changer,” Meyers Drysdale said. “Diana Taurasi to me is still the best in the world, so the fact that somebody like Brittney Griner can come in and bring her skill level and her ability to defend and what she can add the team offensively is a huge plus.”
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But Griner’s arrival might not just be a game-changer for the Mercury, who Griner joked could be the “new Miami Heat” with the roster they have assembled. It very well could be a game-changer for the entirety of women’s basketball.
Never before has this kind of hype and excitement followed a female basketball player from college to the WNBA. That’s because women’s basketball has never seen a player like Griner. At 6 feet 8, she’s not the tallest female player ever, but with her athleticism and physicality she may have no accurate comparison in the history of the sport.
“Lisa Leslie was the first to dunk in our game, Candace Parker has done it, but nobody like Brittney has come along,” Meyers Drysdale said. “It’s going to be huge. Not only her, but (No. 2 pick) Elena Delle Donne and (No. 3 pick) Skylar Diggins. too. Just the name recognition coming out of college and the exposure that (the media) has given these players through college and now coming into the pros, it’s going to be tremendous.
“It’s our 17th season as a league, and it’s kind of a turning of the page to the new generation coming in.”
Griner’s arrival might not propel the WNBA into mainstream popularity, but it seems certain to create more interest in a league that has struggled to stay profitable. Griner’s ability is enough that it got NBA players and coaches talking about her during her record-setting career at Baylor, where she averaged 23.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game as a senior. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently said he would even consider drafting Griner into the NBA.
Cuban’s remarks got the basketball world — all of it — buzzing. We may never find out if he would have done it, or if Griner could have made it in the NBA, but just the discussion has boosted interest in the 22-year-old and the league.
“I think it helps put the league on the map even more,” Gaines said. “Not that we needed the NBA to say that to put us on the map, but I think it’s an honor when the best league in the world is looking at players in the WNBA.”
That kind of discussion in part stems from the fact Griner plays above the rim in a sport that has historically been played below it. Her 14 dunks in college are a women’s collegiate record. She’ll undoubtedly become just the third player to dunk in a WNBA game, following Leslie and Parker, and she seems very likely to shatter Parker’s record of two dunks in one season.
Not only that, but Griner believes she could finish an alley-oop dunk from Taurasi in a game — certainly uncharted territory.
Griner plays a different kind of game than the WNBA has ever seen, and with the league’s new defensive three-second rule opening up the post, she should be much freer than in the final years of her college career.
“It’s definitely going to open it up and let me operate a little more than back in college where teams can pack the paint,” Griner said. “You can’t do that anymore, and even if you could there are so many threats on the Mercury.”
That comment brings Griner’s impact back to Phoenix. She’ll give her new team perhaps the best starting lineup in the league and improve those around her simply by attracting defenders. With Taurasi, Griner, Candice Dupree, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and 2012 first-round pick Samantha Prahalis, the Mercury already appear to be the title favorite. And with such a loaded roster, the pressure of high expectations is eased.
“There’s really no pressure because I’m surrounded by all these great players,” Griner said. “I don’t have to come in and be the focal point and do everything.
Griner also could help the Mercury’s fan base grow exponentially. Though it’s essentially been known since the draft lottery in September that Griner would be the Mercury’s pick, a room full of more than 500 fans — some already wearing custom-made Griner jerseys — erupted when the pick was official.
“From the time I learned Phoenix had the No. 1 pick, I’ve just been waiting for this day to come,” Griner told the crowd via video conference. “I’ve been waiting to tell people I’m a Mercury.”
About 30 minutes after the Mercury picked Griner, the team unveiled a seven-story banner on the side of the downtown Phoenix hotel where they hosted a draft-viewing party. The welcome banner showed Griner dunking in a Mercury uniform.
Just like that, Griner had arrived in Phoenix. Soon enough she’ll arrive on a national stage, perhaps to change woman’s basketball forever.