Brittney Griner, the shot-blocking, slam-dunking 6-8 rookie from Baylor, has changed the WNBA only weeks into her pro career.
The new rule had Brittney Griner’s name on it before she was even in the league.
From the WNBA’s offseason meeting came the new defensive three-second rule, designed to keep a player out of the paint unless she is guarding her assigned opponent.
Right away, though, people were calling it the Griner rule, named after the former Baylor center and first-overall WNBA draft pick by Phoenix who will be front and center Thursday when the Mercury faces the Lynx at Target Center. She entered the league with a bigger wingspan than Kevin Love’s, hands as big as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s and all the hype ESPN can muster.
The league took a look at Griner’s 748 blocked shots in college and decided it couldn’t have her camped in the lane in WNBA games. In a near-unanimous vote — Phoenix was the one team to vote against it — the league changed the rules.
So Griner is now part of an elite group of athletes whose skill and ability have forced games to change. In basketball alone, George Mikan forced the NBA to widen the lane, Wilt Chamberlain forced the lane to grow again and Abdul-Jabbar prompted the NCAA to nix dunking.
“I call her ‘Evolution,’ ” said Lisa Leslie, who should know. The 6-5 Leslie is a four-time Olympic gold medalist, a three-time WNBA MVP, won two league titles and was the first player to dunk in a league game.
“That should be her name,” added Leslie, who retired following the 2009 WNBA season.
“She is a player who is 6-8 who is fast. She can dunk with one hand or two. That, right there, is evolution. I helped the game grow, but she has taken it to a new level — no pun intended.”
The dunks get the attention. Griner did it twice in her WNBA debut, including a two-dribble, two-hander, after which she grabbed the rim and allowed her momentum to bring her body parallel to the ground.
Minutes later, the Mercury lost by 22 points to Chicago. Still, the ESPN headline read: “Brittney Griner dunks twice but Mercury fall to Sky.’’
That’s how players who change the games they play are treated. Back in 1952 the Minneapolis Lakers, led by Mikan, went to New York to play the Knicks. The marquee outside Madison Square Garden read: “Geo Mikan vs. Knicks.”
Joining a rare club
Mikan was the game’s first dominant big player. While in college at DePaul, he forced the NCAA to institute the goaltending rule. In the pros Mikan was so dominant the league changed the lane from 6 feet wide to 12. In 1950 the Fort Wayne Pistons decided the only way to beat Mikan was to hold the ball, resulting in a 19-18 Pistons victory — providing the impetus to implement a shot clock.
A few years later, Chamberlain was so athletic at 7-1 that the game had to change again. As a young player, on free throws he would take a few steps, take off at the free-throw line and dunk the ball. His teams used to inbound the ball over the backboard, where Chamberlain could grab it and dunk it. Both practices were soon outlawed. During his NBA career the lane was widened again, to 16 feet.
And then there was Abdul-Jabbar. Then known as Lew Alcindor, he averaged 29 points a game on 66.7 percent field-goal shooting as a UCLA sophomore in 1966-67. He was so dominant that the NCAA decided to outlaw dunking after that season, a rule the organization didn’t rescind until the 1976-77 season.
And now Griner. For all the attention the dunks get, it is Griner’s ability to defend the rim that forced a leaguewide rules change. And that’s what Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve is worried about, too. Prepping for Thursday’s game, the Lynx practiced against a men’s team that included former Cal State-Northridge center Xavier Crawford, a 7-footer who was encouraged to swat any shot.
The intended lesson?
“We were making sure we’re understanding the difference between courage and stupidity,” Reeve said. “We haven’t seen this in women’s basketball. The control of the body in a player that size, the ability to run the floor, stop, change direction.”
Griner has played only two pro games — both losses — and she already is being called a game-changer.
“I guess you could say that,” Griner said. “By playing above the rim, people say I’m changing the game, just playing like that. … But I really feel like I’m just adding onto it. I’m adding onto the game, bringing in something new.”
So where should we place Griner on the game’s evolutionary scale? Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen, a 6-10 forward/center who had an eight-year NBA career, has some strong opinions.
“It’s a step that is almost beyond game-changing,” he said. “Because the women’s game has never seen anything like this before. A woman this physically gifted, with that size, strength and speed. … I think Lisa Leslie is the Mikan [of the women’s game]. She changed the game for post players and ‘bigs’ and brought a lot of panache to the game. I think Griner is more the Abdul-Jabbar of the game. Or Wilt Chamberlain. I mean, completely dominant.”
That’s a lot of pressure. During training camp, Abdul-Jabbar came to Phoenix and worked with Griner on the sky hook. He developed the unstoppable shot in part because the NCAA took away his ability to dunk. Most agree that if Griner can master the move, it would be borderline unfair.
“She does things that we’ve not seen before in women’s basketball,” said Carolyn Peck, a former college and WNBA coach and now an ESPN analyst. “No one else makes warm-ups exciting, but she does because she goes up and dunks. I think she’ll bring a different fan to the WNBA.”
Said Rebecca Lobo, former league player: “She will change every game she plays, but she won’t change the game of women’s basketball because there aren’t any other 6-8 women out there who have her athletic abilities.’’
For now, Griner knows she will have to get stronger to deal with physical inside play. She knows she’ll need to diversify her offensive game, though many believe the three-second rule will be just as advantageous to her on the offensive side as it is limiting on defense.
“I have a lot to learn,” she said. “I see that every day, with everything I do.”
Mercury veterans Diana Taurasi and Alexis Hornbuckle have helped her transition to the pro level, but it shouldn’t take long. Griner said she doesn’t bother looking at records for things such as scoring or rebounding, though she did admit she might have peeked at Margo Dydek’s all-time block record of 877.
Of course, there are some who aren’t ready to go overboard yet. New York Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, a productive big man during his NBA career, is one of them.
“While players come and go that can change the face of how the game is played, most of them are guards,” he insisted. “Even Wilt, though he may have scored a hundred zillion points, won only one championship [two, actually] when he was older and playing with good guards like Jerry West.”
Laimbeer, though, appears to be in the minority. As for Leslie’s nickname?
“That’s a great compliment,” Griner said.
“I feel like I can,” Griner added, when asked if she would change the game. “I have the opportunity to. I hope I can do that. And you know, I can’t wait to see how it unfolds, throughout my career.”
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