LAS VEGAS — A few days before the All-Star Game, in a poetic sort of foreshadowing, Courtney Vandersloot decided to watch highlights of Brittney Griner dunking.
The 6-foot-9 Phoenix Mercury center has been known for the skill since her college days at Baylor, and Griner and Vandersloot have now both been in the league for a long time — a decade for Griner and 12 years for Vandersloot. They’ve played together overseas and against each other in the WNBA. Seeing Griner dunk brought back happy memories for the Liberty guard.
Last season, Vandersloot and the rest of the WNBA weren’t sure if they would see Griner again at all, let alone dunking on a basketball court.
But on July 9, she threw one down against the Sparks for her first of the season. And on Saturday, there she was again, dunking twice in the All-Star Game and adding a new highlight to the videos Vandersloot was watching.
Brittney Griner was back where she belonged.
BG IS BACKKKK 🔨Brittney Griner with the early slam on ABC! | @ATT #WNBAAllStar pic.twitter.com/2IFGgLMGPh— WNBA (@WNBA) July 16, 2023
BG IS BACKKKK 🔨Brittney Griner with the early slam on ABC! | @ATT #WNBAAllStar pic.twitter.com/2IFGgLMGPh
“Just to see her smile again, she just lights up the WNBA community,” DeWanna Bonner said before the game. “I’m super excited that she gets to be back here and experience this.”
When Griner was announced, the Las Vegas crowd erupted into booming cheers. This time last year, she was still wrongfully detained in a Russian prison. Her presence was felt as the WNBA’s 2022 All-Stars honored Griner by all coming out in the second half wearing her No. 42 jersey.
But on Saturday, there was only one Griner jersey on the floor. The only one the WNBA needed.
It was a powerful, heartfelt moment. But that’s not why Griner was in Las Vegas. The Mercury center made her ninth All-Star appearance because, against all odds, she’s in the midst of an incredible season.
When Griner returned home, she promised to play basketball in 2023 but said it would take her time to get her footing once again. In reality, that hasn’t been the case.
In her first game of the season, Griner recorded 18 points, six rebounds, four blocks and two assists, and since then, she’s continued to stuff the stat sheet. The Mercury are struggling, currently second-to-last in the league standings with a 4-15 record, but Griner is not. She’s averaging 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game.
Seeing Griner smiling, joking with teammates, interacting with fans and even eating bacon and snow cones on the sidelines during All-Star weekend served as a reminder of what was missing when she was gone. Brittney Griner the person is truly something special.
THE @ATT #WNBAAllStar Game missed @brittneygriner so much but she’s BACKKKK 💪Welcoming BG to the floor for Team Stewart pic.twitter.com/kcnXA9tunw— WNBA (@WNBA) July 16, 2023
THE @ATT #WNBAAllStar Game missed @brittneygriner so much but she’s BACKKKK 💪Welcoming BG to the floor for Team Stewart pic.twitter.com/kcnXA9tunw
So is Brittney Griner the basketball player. Seeing her with a ball in her hand, wearing an All-Star jersey was just as impactful. And Griner has been impacting the game for years, dating back to her days at Baylor.
“She’s one of the best to ever do it,” Vandersloot said. “She’s unstoppable, unguardable. It’s incredible what she’s been able to do.”
In the All-Star Game, Griner put up 18 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.
From the sidelines, Stanford star and fellow post player Cameron Brink marveled at Griner’s skills. Brink grew up watching Griner, gleaning whatever she could from the center’s game.
“She’s iconic,” Brink said. “If she drops-steps, you better take charge or something, because you’re not stopping her. She has great body control, a great spin move. She just has a great package of footwork.”
Griner has served as inspiration for a generation of post players who have come behind her, many of whom are in the league now.
Ezi Magbegor still remembers the first time she had to guard Griner when Australia faced the United States in the 2018 FIBA World Cup. Now, the two are peers in the WNBA.
Despite being 6-9 and dominant in the paint, Griner doesn’t just rely on her size, something the 6-4 Magbegor admires.
“She’s not one-dimensional,” the Storm forward said. “She can shoot, and she moves up and down the floor really well. Her presence on the court defensively and offensively is felt, and that is something we all look up to. She’s brought a lot to the game.”
Griner has been consistent on the court from her time at Baylor — where she won an NCAA Championship and was named National Player of the Year in 2012 — to her WNBA career. Since the Mercury selected her with the top overall pick in 2013, Griner has won a WNBA Championship, been named an All-Star seven times and earned a spot on six All-WNBA Teams and seven All-WNBA Defensive Teams.
During her career, Griner has never averaged fewer than 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game — the numbers she put up during her rookie campaign.
With that kind of dominance, it comes as no surprise that after Saturday’s All-Star Game, Griner was asked what it would be like to play as an All-Star in Phoenix, the host site of the 2024 game.
There was no qualifying statement of “if you’re selected,” because Griner having another All-Star season feels like a foregone conclusion.
That’s what happens when, as Vandersloot said, you’re one of the best to ever do it.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.