What Brittney Griner’s return for the 2023 WNBA season means for her and the Phoenix Mercury

Brittney Griner, in her first public statement since her nearly 300 days in detention in Russia, said Friday she intends to play the 2023 season in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury.

This is promising news for the basketball world, although since Griner was released last week, most WNBA players, executives and fans have tried not to get hung up on what her return to the United States will mean for the basketball star’s future or whether she ever has. set foot. in court again.

“We’re going to follow in his footsteps, we’re going to do whatever he wants,” Mercury president Vince Kozar told ESPN last week. “Part of the joy he brings to people is how he plays and how he plays and who he is when he plays.

“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was some sort of anticipation or excitement about the idea that everyone would experience it again, but that’s not what really matters.”

Still, the game doesn’t seem too far from Griner’s mind since returning home. He had light basketball practice on Sunday, ESPN reported, where his first action was a dunk.

The prospect of Griner — a WNBA champion, eight-time All-Star, three-time first-team All-WNBA selection and former MVP challenger — taking the floor with Mercury as the season ended on May 19, some 23 weeks after his release, was thrilling for basketball fans. both those who have followed Griner’s career story since his Baylor days and those who have begun to follow his story more closely over the past year.’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and MA Voepel analyze what Griner’s announcement means to Mercury, Phoenix’s free agent focus, Griner’s basketball career and more.

What questions did Griner immediately answer for Mercury?

Griner’s return clarifies the style of play we can expect from Phoenix.

Mercury’s unexpected spike to claim a playoff berth came in unorthodox style without Griner and fellow All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith (away from the team for personal reasons) and Diana Taurasi (quadriceps). After parting ways with Tina Charles mid-season, Phoenix leaned toward smallball, with first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard playing 6-foot-1, 6-3 Sophie Cunningham frontcourt Brianna Turner.

Getting Griner’s 6-9 back immediately made the small ball memorable for Mercury. With her and Turner, Phoenix was on front court, reuniting the duo that led the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. Griner was the dominant force that postseason, averaging 21.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG, and 3.0 APG and shot 56% from the field.

Technically, Griner is an unrestricted free agent as the WNBA honors the final season of her contract in 2022 while she was unlawfully imprisoned. Because Mercury used the core designation on Griner when he reached free agency in 2020 and signed a three-year contract, he is no longer eligible for a starting starting lineup.

Still, Griner’s statement made it clear that she intends to return to the WNBA in Phoenix. So Mercury can count on him and Taurasi, who indicated last month that he plans to return for season 19 of The Valley. — Kevin Pelton

What questions remain for the team and how will they impact Mercury’s approach to free agency?

Sources told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss that Mercury’s priority is to re-sign Griner.

Still, that leaves a lot of question marks. Phoenix’s third runway Diggins-Smith announced in October that she was expecting her second child. Apart from Diggins-Smith and Turner, Mercury only has one other player under contract for 2023: forward Diamond DeShields.

Other Phoenix free agents include Cunningham (who is restricted) and 2021 starter Kia Nurse, who missed all of last season to rehabilitate an ACL injury he sustained during the Mercury playoff run. If Griner and Taurasi return to their previous supermax salaries, it seems unrealistic for Phoenix to re-sign Cunningham and Nurse while remaining under the WNBA’s hard pay cap.

Due to the DeShields trade, Mercury doesn’t have a first-round pick this year, which will make upgrading the roster a challenge – but not as difficult as replacing the producing Griner last season. — Pelton

After 10 months in captivity, what can we expect from Griner physically?

We don’t know. It’s hard to project where Griner was physically on May 19, Mercury’s season opener at the Los Angeles Sparks (May 21 was Mercury’s home opener at the Footprint Center). That would mean 154 days from now, roughly half the time Griner is being held in Russia. Digging back into the demands of becoming a professional athlete after 10 months of little or no physical activity — at least by the standards of high-level athlete training — will be a challenge Griner has never faced before.

Just as important as his physical health, if not more, is Griner’s mental health. Even before her detention in Russia, Griner publicly revealed she had sought mental health treatment and said the need to address her mental health caused her to leave the 2020 WNBA bubble early. Monitoring how Griner is mentally in the months (and years) following his release, and as he tries to get his basketball back, will no doubt be a priority for those in his camp.

Prior to his wrongful detention, Griner had a relatively healthy professional career, playing 254 games in nine seasons, averaging no less than 25.9 minutes per game in any one season and more than 30 in all but two of them.

The last time we saw her on the court in the WNBA, in 2021, she came in second in MVP voting after crying in the second half of the regular season, ultimately pushing Mercury to a shock spot in the 2021 WNBA Finals, where they fell to Chicago sky.

Do those pre-2022 numbers tell us much about what her future in the WNBA looks like, especially early in the 2023 season? Probably not, and understandably given the life-changing experience Griner recently had. But if Mercury’s remarks are any indication, whether Griner can replicate the level he was playing before detention is of little importance. — Alexa Philippou

What did Griner bring to Mercury beyond his on-court skills?

For the most part, Griner has been an uplifting presence for Mercury and someone who gets along and communicates well with his teammates. He can facilitate communication even among teammates who may not be on good terms.

In the 2020 COVID-19 bubble season, Griner was careful to work on his mental health, an act he was very open about, and left the bubble early. But for the most part, he’s been a huge part of Mercury’s cohesion over the years.

Last season, Mercury lacked that. With a new coach, the daily worries over Griner’s well-being, the obvious friction between Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, Charles’ departure and injury, it seemed the miraculous Phoenix had even made it to the playoffs. Turner, who was one of the team’s rocks, admitted after his first-round loss to the Las Vegas Aces that he wished he never had a season like that again. Mercury greatly missed Griner’s personality.

But looking for light in that darkness, note that Turner and Cunningham improved as players, both taking on greater responsibility. The two also have a good friendship with Griner. If Cunningham returns as a free agent, the three is a good core of positive vibes for Mercury.

Everyone who knows Griner describes him as someone who usually has a cool and easygoing personality and wants everyone to get along. He can sometimes facilitate that by cracking jokes or being “goofy” because he doesn’t really bring ego into the team dynamic. It was difficult to gauge how what he had been through could affect his soul. But his willingness this early after his incarceration to address his basketball future suggests he still sees the sport as it has always been: more places and its safe haven. — M.A. Voepel

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