When Brittney Griner entered the league in 2013, the former-Baylor star quickly delivered on the high expectations that greeted her by bringing a WNBA championship to Phoenix in her second season. Averaging 15.6 points, 8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game that year, Griner led the team with 6.8 win shares and was everything Diana Taurasi needed in a running mate.
Most assumed more league titles were sure to follow. But six chances have now come and gone without another Mercury appearance in the Finals.
Taurasi took a full WNBA season off (2015) and has been in and out with injuries, while Griner has been steadily doing her part in the paint. She’s been a WNBA All-Star every single year they’ve held a game; averaging 20-plus points in four of the last five years, she’s also led the Mercury in win shares in four of her eight seasons in Phoenix.
While her rebounding and defensive numbers have stayed consistent, they’ve dipped in recent years after she won back-to-back WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2014 and 2015. During those years, she set the record for most blocks in a season (2014) and average blocks per game (2015) — records which still stand today.
Given her skill, athleticism and game-changing height (Griner is listed at 6-foot-9), fans have come to expect Griner to dominate in the paint, night in and night out, season after season. Anytime she doesn’t take over a game, there’s a nagging suspicion that some next-level greatness has been left untapped.
During the WNBA’s 2020 “Wubble” season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Griner unexpectedly left the WNBA bubble “for personal reasons” after just 13 of the Mercury’s 22 regular-season games. She eventually spoke about her departure several months later while at a USA Basketball camp in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
While maintaining a degree of privacy, she made it clear her decision was based on mental health, stating, “With everything I was dealing with, I needed to take that leave. It took a lot for me to make that decision.”
Months before Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, igniting a maelstrom of public debate, Griner quietly sparked her own conversation by departing to take care of herself.
“I definitely used counseling a lot when I left,” she later said. “It’s helped me out tremendously. I think more people should be open to talking about mental health issues and finding that centerpiece with themselves.”
In addition to counseling, Griner was able to spend time camping, off-roading and working on her Jeep back in Phoenix. Given the year-round grind that’s required of WNBA players who also play overseas, those weeks of personal time were a rare opportunity for Griner. And they seem to have paid off.
After returning to the court at the start of 2021 to play once again with her UMMC Ekaterinburg team in Russia, Griner won a third consecutive EuroLeague title and then the Olympic gold medal with Team USA in Tokyo. In Japan, she started all six games and averaged 22.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and nine blocks, all while shooting the highest field goal percentage of anyone on the team.
But the biggest indicator of a refreshed mindset may be Griner’s performance in the WNBA this season. She is currently second in the league in points per game (20.8) and second in field goal percentage. She is leading the league in blocks and averaging a career best 9.5 rebounds per game. And she’s leading the Mercury in win shares. (Not a small feat given the star power of running mates Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.)
And although WNBA fans aren’t in it for the slam dunks, the fact that Griner has dunked four times already this season, something she hasn’t done since 2014 and 2015, reveals just how fired up she’s feeling. One more and she’ll break her own record for most dunks in a single season.
IT'S THE YEAR OF THE @brittneygriner SLAMS BABYYY 🔥WATCHHHHH OUT ‼️💻 https://t.co/fnncD5G4m5 pic.twitter.com/05BN9v07wo— WNBA (@WNBA) September 12, 2021
IT'S THE YEAR OF THE @brittneygriner SLAMS BABYYY 🔥WATCHHHHH OUT ‼️💻 https://t.co/fnncD5G4m5 pic.twitter.com/05BN9v07wo
Back at USA Basketball camp early in the year, Griner elaborated on why it was important for her to be open about taking care of her mental health.
“We really don’t talk about our feelings. Just put it in a box and forget about it, push it to the back,” she said. “That’s something that hurts us as a society honestly and is something that’s going to change with more athletes speaking up about it.”
After the Olympic break, Griner and the Mercury went on a 10-game win streak before losing to the top-ranked Connecticut Sun last Saturday. Given that eight of those wins came against the bottom three teams in the league, their upcoming final two games of the season, against the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces, will be a much better test of the team’s playoff readiness.
As of now, they are one win behind the Storm for a top-four regular season finish and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
If they go on a run this WNBA postseason, it will largely be thanks to Griner’s willingness to look after herself last year in the 2020 bubble. She invested in herself by taking a break, and now the Mercury may be the ultimate benefactors.
Tune in: The Phoenix Mercury take on the Seattle Storm this Friday at 10 p.m. ET on NBATV.