There seemed to be a number of people that thought it was a given that 6'8 phenom Brittney Griner would dominate the WNBA upon her arrival.
Those people also happened to not be named Brittney Griner.
Griner knew that she would be an even bigger target by the veteran post players in the league because of the fanfare she came with. She knew the talent level was going to jump and that she'd have to be at her best every night. She knew that the players were bigger, faster and stronger on top of that talent and that she'd have to adjust. But what may have been the toughest adjustments are two things that she probably thought least about: injuries and interviews.
Griner played a relatively injury-free college career with the one major injury being a broken wrist that played a role in keeping her out of the Olympics but didn't affect her playing for Baylor. Fast forward to the WNBA, in a June game against Minnesota during her rookie season, Griner sprained her knee and never really looked quite the same, even forced to sit out her first nod as an All-Star starter.
Take that injury factor and then consider that at all 11 venues that the Mercury played during the regular season, interviews were in high demand. Even opposing teams added Griner and her superstardom to their docket for fans to greet and sign autographs. Coming off a college season that had to be physically exhausting and a college career that has been revealed to be just as taxing mentally, Griner had to have felt like a shell of what she knew she was capable of. She still had her bright spots though, highlighted by her series-winning buzzer beater to eliminate the second seeded Los Angeles Sparks and reigning-MVP Candace Parker in the first round of the playoffs.
Take a look at the numbers five games into this season as opposed to her rookie campaign:
2014: 15.4 PPG 7.2 rpg 3.8 bpg 2.2 apg .80 spg 2.8 turnovers 63.8% FG 77.3% FT 3.6 fouls in 27.4 minutes
2013: 15.2 PPG 6.2 rpg 3.2 bpg .60 apg .60 spg 2.0 turnovers 59.6% FG 73.7% FT 3 fouls in 26.3 minutes
So if we just look at the raw numbers, Griner has improved in every facet. The number that stands out most obviously Is the assists. Griner has tripled her assist numbers (11-3) in the same sample size over last year. This fully illustrates the level of comfort she has now playing at this level.
"I think everything's slowed down for her a little bit," said Diana Taurasi, according to a Mercury release after their 87-72 win over the Seattle Storm on Tuesday. "And as a rookie, you don't know what to expect... I think it took her by storm a little bit, and she's figuring that part out."
One play in the most recent game against Seattle stands out: starting the fourth quarter after Seattle had closed within eight, the Mercury came down and went to Griner on the right block with Crystal Langhorne defending. Griner spun middle into the help from Temeka Johnson - who for whatever reason decided to leave the best player in the world to help on Griner - and calmly kicked the ball right into Taurasi's shooting pocket for a three that pushed the lead back to 11.
Griner's fouls and turnovers have risen a bit and while to the blind eye those things are bad, what it says to me - as well as a few basketball minds that don't watch the WNBA that I showed these numbers to - is that Griner is probably being more aggressive, which is what you want from the player set to take Taurasi's mantle as the face of this franchise in 20 years when Taurasi finally loses a step.
The final piece of the puzzle is the shooting percentages. Obviously you want to see those increase as she gets comfortable with the increased physicality but consider this: Griner shot a solid 59.6 % five games in last year having taken 52 shots. This season? She's shooting 63.8% having taken 5 less shots.
"I'm getting deeper position," said Griner, according to the Mercury release after the Storm game. "I'm not getting the ball, like ‘Ok, what I need to do next?' I'm getting it, and I'm like, ‘Alright if you're not coming, I'm going. If you're coming, then I'm picking them apart. Where's the open man at?'"
Her free throw percentage has also improved. Last year, Griner was at 73.7% from the line on 19 shots. For the 2014 season? Griner's shooting from the line has jumped 4 percentage points points with another 3 shots factored in.
Combine these things with the fact that Griner seems to just be having fun on the court and she has teammates that are pushing for her greatness as it's vital to their success, this could be a real chance for Griner to put her stamp on the league. Griner probably won't put up the monster numbers she could be capable of as the talent level of the Mercury is exceedingly ahead of last year's, but if she can just continue to improve at the pace she has so far, Phoenix may find itself exactly where it wants to be in August: celebrating a third WNBA championship.