Carrying some of the most grandiose expectations of a rookie in any team sport ever, 6-foot-8 Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner approached the podium at Media Day Friday, a little over two weeks before her first game, jovial and charismatic.
She seemed comfortable in her new uniform and joked about the microphone being too low and how the temperature in Arizona wasn’t an “oven” yet. She mentioned how she likes the sunsets, as well, but most importantly, she compared her pro practices to ones she had during her stellar career at Baylor that included an undefeated national title as a junior.
“It was a faster pace, but not anything I really couldn’t do,” Griner said of her first week of training camp. “A lot of personalities, when D (Diana Taurasi) came in, it (the change in atmosphere) was over, everyone just kept feeding off one another, It was a good feeling, being on the same team.”
Mercury coach Corey Gaines, likely the envy of most WNBA coaches at this point, is enjoying teaching Griner new tactics.
“She’s had a successful camp so far, a lot of learning going on, getting used to my terminology,” Gaines said. “We do have a veteran team, but I think she’s so happy to be here. We did a drill, and she said, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ I said ‘that’s OK.’ She had never set a pick and roll, and I had to teach her how to dive. She’s done a great job, definitely on a learning curve, but she’s picking it up.”
Coach Gaines said her defense was so aggressive in college that she never had to use a pick and roll.
Griner fits right in with Diana Taurasi, who was in a similar position upon being selected first overall from Connecticut in 2004 and blossomed into a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is never short of a comedic wise crack. She, along with stars Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner, arrived Friday in time for the second week of camp.
“These are lofty expectations, we haven’t even had a full practice yet,” Taurasi said. “You look around and we have some of the best players in the world, whether you’ve been here 10 years or it’s your first camp, but all of that doesn’t mean much if we don’t learn early. As we grow, we’ll get better.”
It was Taurasi and Griner’s first meeting with one another. Taurasi told her to enjoy it and also mentioned that when she was a rookie, she had to buy veteran Nikki McCray plenty of lunches. Griner suggested taking her to McDonald’s.
“She’s a young kid, but very mature in a lot of ways,” Taurasi said of Griner. “She’s been in the spotlight for a long time, it’s going to be exciting.”
The situation is much like that of Candace Parker who went No. 1 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2008 and had Lisa Leslie to learn from in a rookie season that culminated with being named the league MVP.
“I feel like any questions I have, I can go to her,” Griner said of Taurasi. “She was the No. 1 draft pick, so she knows what it takes. I’m ready to be that sponge and absorb everything.”
The Mercury hosts the Japanese national team in a preseason game at 3 p.m. May 19 and the Chicago Sky at 2 p.m. May 27 to open the season. The Sky chose Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and also retain center Sylvia Fowles, who will be Griner’s first post opposition.