Brittney Griner said in her first public statement since her nearly 300-day incarceration in Russia on Friday that she intends to play the 2023 season in the WNBA for Phoenix Mercury.
It’s promising news for the basketball world, though since Griner’s release last week, most WNBA players, executives, and fans have tried not to commit to what her return to the United States would mean for the star’s basketball future, or if she’ll ever have one Set foot back on the pitch.
“We’re going to follow her example, we’re going to do whatever she wants,” Mercury President Vince Kozar told ESPN last week. “Part of the joy she’s brought people is how she plays and how she plays and who she is when she plays.
“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s some kind of anticipation or excitement about the idea of everyone going to experience that again, but that’s not the most important thing.”
Still, the game doesn’t seem to have strayed too far from Griner’s mind since returning home. She did light basketball practice on Sunday, ESPN reported, where her first act was a dunk.
The prospect of Griner — a WNBA champion, eight-time All-Star, three-time All-WNBA first-team selector and former MVP contender — speaking out with the Mercury when the season ends May 19, about 23 weeks Her release is exciting for basketball enthusiasts, both those who have followed Griner’s turbulent career since her Baylor days and those who have begun to follow her story more closely over the past year.
ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and MA Voepel analyze what Griner’s announcement means for Mercury, Phoenix’s focus on free agency, Griner’s basketball career and more.
What questions does Griner’s return immediately answer for the Mercury?
Griner’s return illustrates the playstyle we’ve come to expect from Phoenix.
Mercury’s unexpected run for a playoff spot came unorthodoxly without Griner and fellow All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith (not on the team due to personal reasons) and Diana Taurasi (quadricep injury). After parting ways with Tina Charles midseason, Phoenix leaned into small ball with first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard playing a frontcourt of 6-foot-1 Sophie Cunningham and 6-3 Brianna Turner.
Getting 6-9 Griner back makes the little ball an instant reminder for the Mercury. With her and Turner, Phoenix is covered in the run-up, reuniting the duo that led the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. Griner has been a dominant force this postseason, averaging 21.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, and 3.0 APG, and shooting 56% from the field.
Technically, Griner is an unrestricted free agent as the WNBA fulfilled the final season of her contract in 2022 while she was wrongly imprisoned. Because the Mercury used the core designation for Griner when she reached free agency in 2020 and signed a three-year deal, she is no longer eligible to be called a core player.
However, Griner’s statement made it clear that she intends to return to the WNBA in Phoenix. So the Mercury can count on having both her and Taurasi, who hinted last month that she plans to return to the Valley for a 19th season. – Kevin Pelton
What questions remain for the team and how might they impact Mercury’s approach to freehand?
Sources told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss that Mercury’s priority is re-signing Griner.
However, this leaves many question marks. Phoenix’s third cornerstone, Diggins-Smith, announced in October that she was expecting her second child. Besides Diggins-Smith and Turner, the Mercury only have one other player signed for 2023: forward Diamond DeShields.
Phoenix’s other free agents include Cunningham (who is restricted) and 2021 starter Kia Nurse, who missed the entirety of last season to rehab the ACL injury she sustained during Mercury’s playoff run. If both Griner and Taurasi return to their previous supermax salaries, it probably won’t be realistic for Phoenix to re-sign Cunningham and Nurse while staying under the WNBA’s tough salary cap.
Due to the DeShields trade, the Mercury don’t have a first-round pick this year, which will make upgrading the roster a challenge — but not nearly as difficult as replacing Griner’s production was last season. – Pelton
Last we saw Brittney Griner on court in the WNBA, the Phoenix Mercury Center finished second in MVP voting. Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images
After 10 months in prison, what can we expect physically from Griner?
We do not know it. It’s difficult to predict where Griner will be physically by May 19, Mercury’s season opener at the Los Angeles Sparks (May 21 is Mercury’s opener at home at the Footprint Center). That’s 154 days from now, about half the time Griner was imprisoned in Russia. Getting back to the demands of a professional athlete after 10 months of little to no physical activity—at least compared to the standard high-level athletes—will be a challenge unlike anything Griner has experienced before.
Just as important, if not more so, than her physical health is Griner’s mental health. Even before her incarceration in Russia, Griner had publicly disclosed that she had sought mental health treatment and said the need to address her mental health led her to exit the 2020 WNBA bubble early leaving. Surveillance, like monitoring Griner in the months (and years) after her release and as she tries to get her basketball back, will no doubt be a priority for those in her camp.
Prior to her wrongful imprisonment, Griner had a relatively healthy pro career, playing 254 games in nine seasons, averaging as many as 25.9 minutes per game per season and over 30 minutes in all but two seasons.
The last time we saw her hit the floor in the WNBA in 2021, she finished second in MVP voting after suffering a tear in the second half of the regular season, eventually propelling the Mercury to a surprise WNBA spot. Finale 2021 brought where they fell in the Chicago skies.
Ahead of 2022, do these numbers tell us much about what their future might be in the WNBA, especially as the 2023 season begins? Maybe not, and understandably given the life-changing experience Griner just went through. But if Mercury’s statements are any indication, whether Griner can repeat their pre-incarceration level of play isn’t of paramount importance. – Alexa Philippou
What does Griner bring to the Mercury beyond her on-court skills?
For the most part, Griner was an uplifting presence for the Mercury and someone who gets along well and communicates with her teammates. It can even facilitate communication between teammates who might otherwise not get along well.
In the 2020 COVID-19 bubble season, Griner was careful to address her mental health, actions she was very open about, and left the bubble early. But for the most part, she’s been a big part of the Mercury cohesion over the years.
Last season, the Mercury lacked that. With a new coach, daily concern for Griner’s well-being, apparent tensions between Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, Charles’ departure and injuries, it seemed like Phoenix might even make the playoffs. Turner, who was one of the team’s rocks, admitted after the first-round loss to the Las Vegas Aces that she hoped she never had to experience a season like this again. Mercury missed Griner’s personality very much.
But if you’re looking for light in that darkness, note that Turner and Cunningham have improved as players and both have taken on greater responsibilities. Both also have good friendships with Griner. With Cunningham returning as a free agent, these three are a good core of positive vibes for the Mercury.
Everyone who knows Griner describes her as someone who usually has a laid-back, easy-going personality and wants everyone to get along. She can sometimes facilitate this by making a joke or being “silly” because she doesn’t really bring ego into the team dynamic. It’s hard to gauge how what she went through might affect her psyche. But her willingness to address her basketball future so soon after her incarceration shows she still views the sport as she always has: more of her safe place and sanctuary. — MA Voepel
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