Wings, Mercury centers will command attention in opener

The WNBA tips off its season Friday night with a matchup of international intrigue between the Dallas Wings and host Phoenix Mercury that features two of the top centers in the game.

Phoenix’s Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-9 force in the middle who has 10 of the 13 dunks in WNBA history during the regular season, is a leading MVP candidate entering her sixth season in the league.

She recently returned from winning a championship in Russia during the winter season.

Dallas 6-8 post phenom Liz Cambage is a top international player who is returning to the WNBA after a four-year hiatus. She was drafted No. 2 overall in 2011 by Tulsa, which has since relocated to Dallas.

Cambage did not enjoy her time in Tulsa and left in 2013 to play in China and her native Australia. She decided to return to the WNBA to hone her game heading into September’s World Cup in Spain.

“I’m here because I want to better my game, especially heading into world champs,” Cambage said. “I want to go in there as strong as possible.”

Cambage says she has to play Griner “straight up,” but Cambage’s focus might not center entirely on Griner. She will also play against Australian national team coach Sandy Brondello, the Mercury head coach, and Aussie teammates Leilani Mitchell and Stephanie Talbot.

“It’s going to be scary,” Cambage said. “Sandy knows me better than any other coach in the league.”

Cambage joins a Dallas team that went 16-18 last year and returns 10 players, including All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith and 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray. Rookie forward Azura Stevens, a good reinforcement for Cambage at 6-6, is with the Wings after forgoing her senior season at Connecticut to play in the WNBA.

Griner headlines a Mercury team that went 18-16 last season and features 14-year WNBA veteran Diana Taurasi, versatile wing DeWanna Bonner (who returns after missing last year because she gave birth) and point guard Briann January, a six-time WNBA All-Defensive Team selection who was acquired from Indiana.

“Man, we’re loaded,” said Griner, who led the WNBA in scoring last year with a career-high 21.9 points per game while shooting 57 percent from the field. “They went down the list and had everything we needed they just checked off the list and got it.”

Griner’s 2.5 blocks per game led the league last season. She is also a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year who shot 81 percent from free throw line last year and averaged 7.6 rebounds per game.

She helped UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia to EuroLeague and Russian titles.

“Got to play year-round,” she said. “Got to make it. It can’t be there forever, so you’ve got to make it where you can.”