Last October in Russia, Diana Taurasi approached Mercury teammate Brittney Griner at the outset of their season with UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Looking at the towering talent who now totes four WNBA All-Star selections, a WNBA championship, two WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and an Olympic gold medal, Taurasi raised her hand but not as high as it or Griner could go.
“You’re here,” Taurasi told Griner. “Are you going to be happy with this right here or are you going to get better and not be complacent with that? Break through and go beyond.”
Like a wrecking ball, Griner plowed through that wall to leave goodness for greatness. Griner has become the atypical Most Improved Player top candidate.
Many win the award for having the “most improved” playing time or shot increases. Griner is worthy for passing the eyeball test of being a stronger, more poised focal point and the statistical test of improving raw numbers (a 6.7-point leap has made her the league’s scoring leader) and per-36 averages (her increases surpass any other candidate).
“Those who cover the WNBA and fans of the league, and especially the Mercury, recognize how much Brittney has improved,” ESPN WNBA analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “It’s exciting to see a player who was already dominant improve the way BG has.”
Griner’s usage rate skyrocketed from 21.6 percent last season to 28.1 percent this season. Yet, she remains as efficient as ever with a career-high true shooting percentage (63.4) and the league’s third-best efficiency rating (1.36).
At 26 years old, Griner built on a four-year resume that already would qualify for a great career. While playing in Russia, Griner worked out with weights more often, adding lifts on off-days until her arms did not show the effect of doing so on her mid-range jumpers.
By the turn of the year, Griner was finishing stronger while avoiding simple mistakes and foul trouble. That carried over to the WNBA season for the playoff-bound Mercury.
“I know how I played last year,” Griner said. “I know who pushed me around. I know who I couldn’t stand my ground as much against. Now, I stand my ground. I’m stronger with my two feet, not falling back and looking unbalanced, making stronger moves to the basket, getting more and-ones.”
Griner leads the WNBA in free throws made and attempted with a career-best rate for getting to the line.
“It all came down to her getting stronger – physically stronger, mentally stronger,” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “She got confidence in her body being able to handle more contact without changing her shot. Confidence is a wonderful thing. It’s hard to get and easy to lose. We gave her the green light away from the basket. She’s a very good shooter. She’s expanded her game. She’s a good passer. We put the ball in her hand, not to just be a scorer but also a playmaker. That shows a lot of maturity on her behalf.”
The expanded role is significant because Griner does so while often being double- and triple-teamed. She is the rare high-scoring center. She enhanced her offensive game while remaining the league’s defensive force with a league-leading 2.5 blocks per game.
“There’s an expectation that you’ve always been good so it’s hard for casual fans to appreciate a star who is continuing to improve,” said 2005 Most Improved Player winner Nicole Powell, now the head coach of Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. “It’s like, ‘Well, she should be doing that.’ What we’re seeing from Brittney is a lot of work behind the scenes – hours in the gym. She has taken her game to another level. That’s what a Most Improved Player truly means.”
Griner came into the season with a career scoring average of 14.5 but jumped to 21.2 this season by using deeper post-up positioning, improved perimeter shooting and a wider array of moves that capitalize on her outstanding footwork.
She posted the first 30-point game of her career in the Mercury’s second game this season and added three more 30-point games since then, despite missing four weeks to a knee bone bruise and ankle sprain. Until the injuries, Brondello said Griner deserved to be the league MVP, considering how her workload compares to MVP favorite Sylvia Fowles with star-studded Minnesota.
Griner defends the top opposing frontcourt player. She is charged with controlling the boards and starting the Mercury’s fastbreak. She is expected to change ends swiftly and handle nearly every possession going through her hands.
“BG is more confident and capable and willing to dominate,” Lobo said. “She looks more comfortable being the main option offensively. She’s expanded her offensive moves and range as well. She has become a better and more dominant offensive player.”
As her 27th birthday approaches in October, Griner is just now entering her prime. She is far closer to the start of her WNBA career than the end of it.
“This is definitely not it for me,” Griner said. “There’s more to come.”