Without Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury prepares for 2022 WNBA season

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Without Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury prepares for 2022 WNBA season

PHOENIX — There will be a conspicuous and imposing absence for the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night in their 2022 WNBA season opener — and beyond.

Friday’s game against the Las Vegas Aces will be Phoenix’s first without Brittney Griner, widely considered the most dominant center in women’s basketball in the world. Griner has been detained in Russia since February 17, after customs officials said they found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.

With no timetable for his release, the Mercury has spent the past two and a half months preparing for this season knowing they won’t have Griner, who is expecting a hearing on May 19, for the foreseeable future.

What was considered a superteam in early February after the Mercury signed Tina Charles in free agency and traded for Diamond DeShields to complement Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Griner was forced to reassess its approach this season. . The Mercury remain in search of a second straight trip to the WNBA Finals, but gone are the grand visions of matching last season’s two leading scorers in the WNBA — Charles (23.4 PPG) and Griner (20.5 PPG). ), respectively — on the court together. Gone, it seems, is hope that Griner will get his first MVP award this season.

Griner is irreplaceable in many ways, starting with his size. The 6-foot-9 center has the ability to change the face of a game with her defensive presence in the lane. Griner led the WNBA in blocks last season (1.9 per game), and was sixth in total rebounds, rebounds per game (9.5) and offensive and defensive rebounds.

She is also an offensive force and led the league in field goals and 2-point field goals, shooting 36 more than the next closest player, and was also third in field goal percentage (.575). Griner had the sixth-most free throw attempts, as well as the sixth-most free throws made. And, according to Basketball Reference, Griner had the highest player efficiency rating, highest offensive rating, highest offensive winning percentage and second-highest winning percentage in the WNBA in 2021.

So how does Phoenix try to replace Griner’s MVP-caliber season? Charles, 33, is expected to play more in the post without Griner; Charles averaged 33.3 minutes per game last season, fifth-most in the league, and attempted a career-high 137 3-pointers. Phoenix could also end up running more on offense, with smaller lineups, and will have to rely more on Charles and Brianna Turner on the defensive end.

While Phoenix has been figuring out what life would be like without Griner, she’s constantly on the minds of her teammates. And balancing the emotions of missing Griner with the need to prepare for the season hasn’t been easy.

“We think about her every day,” Diggins-Smith said. “We love her and we will continue to carry her legacy, her voice and play in her honor until she comes back here with us.”

Despite the conspicuous absence, Mercury’s first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard believes her team has focused on the court.

“Once you bounce the ball, you start blowing the whistle, and you only focus on that when you’re a competitor,” Nygaard said. “In basketball, at any moment, someone could get injured or something could happen and they wouldn’t be available, and you have to fight with what you have at the moment…

“Once we start competing, once we start, the players are very focused on their individual roles, responsibilities and the success of the group.”
Nygaard said his adjustments have been slight. A full overhaul wasn’t necessary because of some offseason signings, a returning core and some experience playing without Griner (she left the 2020 season in Bradenton, Fla., early, and Phoenix played its last 10 games without her).

Still, shooting guard Sophie Cunningham thinks it might take a few games to get used to playing without Griner, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time scoring champion.

“Nobody is like BG in the whole world,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re going to be fine, but of course we’d love to have B.”

Finding out what life will be like without Griner will not be static. It will be a smooth discovery, day by day, guard Kia Nurse said.

“Any night could be somebody’s big scoring night and somebody’s best assist night could change the next day,” he said. “And so just being able to have that versatility on our roster and having that ability to go out there every night and give us a chance to win.”

Adaptability and flexibility will define 2022 for Mercury. Charles will be the centerpiece of the offense, closely complemented by Diggins-Smith and Taurasi, 39. From there, Nygaard will build. “I don’t think you have to be super traditional in lineups like you have in the past,” the coach said.

Charles isn’t planning on changing his game just because his role will be different without Griner.

“I was still going to go in and assert myself in the same way regardless,” he said. “That’s me. I just try to be a star in my role, whether it’s being on the outside shooting shots, being on the inside at times, my focus would remain the same — be as dominant as I can in whatever my assigned role was for this team. and the minutes that they were going to give me”.

Replacing Griner’s height will be nearly impossible, but Phoenix has Charles and forward/center Kristine Anigwe, who are both 6-foot-4, and a pair of 6-foot-3 forwards in Maya Dodson and Turner. And the Mercury is trying to see a silver lining.

“Obviously when he left the bubble, that was an adjustment,” Diggins-Smith said. “I think our style of play changed a little bit, in terms of our desire to be a team that runs up and down and has a lot of possessions. Obviously, defensive schemes and things like that will change, and I’m sure it would be the other way around. As far as how teams can play against us. So, I think some of that remains to be seen.”

Success, Nygaard said, is in the details. Do all the little things right: execute plays correctly, trust, pay attention to minutiae, play rhythm, make shots. The Mercury believe they can get back to the WNBA Finals this season and, this time, win the franchise’s first title since 2014.

But lacking the backbone of her defense, one of her teammates, and one of her friends, all for reasons beyond her control, it will take time to get over it.

“It’s definitely going to be different without the best player in the world,” Diggins-Smith said. “And that’s something that we haven’t all sunk in, at least until she comes back. But, you know, we’re going to have to.”

“Not having a big one in the paint like that could open up a lot of lanes for Dee to [Taurasi] and Sky [Diggins-Smith] score the ball or draw attention and pass for the 3-pointer,” Cunningham said.

Griner left the bubble for personal reasons in 2020 after playing the first 12 games, in which the Mercury went 6-6. Without her in the lineup, they went 7-3 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs. Although this year’s roster has changed greatly since that season, there are four of the five bubble starters left plus Cunningham — enough to remember what it took to win without Griner and know how to use that experience. now.

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