NEW ORLEANS — Brittney Griner is ready to take her longboard to the next level.
And unless she gets too reckless on her chosen form of ground transportation/recreation — as she did in a parking garage last spring, a tumble that resulted in a broken wrist — many are saying Griner will be a transformative figure in women’s basketball.
“We’ve never seen another like her in our game,” said Ann Meyers Drysdale, general manager of the Phoenix Mercury, which is poised to take the 6-foot-8 center from Baylor with the first pick in Monday’s WNBA draft. “We’ve certainly had other players who are as tall if not taller, but none have had the footwork and mobility Brittany has. I like the demeanor she shows out on the floor, too. And she’s only to get better playing against women who are older and stronger than she is right now.”
Unless she’s playing against the guys.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently said that he would consider taking Griner in the second round of the NBA draft. While most pooh-poohed the idea — Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma called it “absolutely ludicrous” — Griner seemed receptive to it.
“When are tryouts?” she asked. “The WNBA is where I’m at. That’s where I’m going. After that, if I get a shot, why turn something down like that?”
It certainly would do no harm to Griner’s marketability, which the WNBA is counting on to lift the league’s profile. The WNBA also should get a boost from Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, who are expected to follow Griner in the draft and as picks by Chicago and Tulsa.
ESPN, which promoted the trio as “3 To See” throughout their senior seasons and which recently signed a long-term deal with the WNBA, is airing the draft in prime time for the first time. It’s set for 7 p.m. CDT Monday on ESPN2.
“ESPN isn’t telling the league who to draft and when,” said Mechelle Voepel, who covers women’s basketball for ESPN.com. “But I think that’s pretty well been known who the top three players were, and getting their name recognition out there doesn’t hurt.”
In Griner’s case, her Q Score has been enhanced by her dunking ability, including three in an NCAA second-round tournament game against Florida State. But Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said that skill is down the list on Griner’s value to a team.
“What separates Brittney from everyone else is how she disrupts things on the defensive end,” Mulkey said. “She makes you change your offensive plans because you have to think about driving in on her, and she’ll also go out on the perimeter and alter shots. I didn’t see Wilt Chamberlain play, but I think she can change the women’s game like he did the men’s game.”
Plus, there’s Griner’s image. A self-described “big kid,” she has been a magnet for youngsters throughout her college career.
After road games, she would tirelessly sign autographs until, according to Baylor assistant strength coach Jeremy Heffner, who served as her unofficial bodyguard, “she just opens her arms as wide as she can and takes them all in a big hug.”
“I love kids,” Griner said. “If I can sign anything for them or talk to them or anything, I’ll do it.”
Griner said she has a deeper motive for being so giving. Thanks to her size — she wears size 17 men’s shoes — gangly gait when not in uniform and androgynous appearance, Griner said she has been the object of taunting for as long as she can remember.
And since she became well known at Baylor, harsh remarks have often shown up online. Griner said she reads them regularly because “I’m kind of fascinated about how wild they can be. One rumor was that (the Hornets’) Anthony Davis and I were dating. I mean, for real? Wow!”
The hurtful ones, though, remind of her why others look up to her.
“I’m proud of who I am, and I’m very happy in my own skin,” she said. “And if there are young kids out there who may feel different but they see how I really don’t care what other people think, then maybe I can relay to them how to deal with things and help them out someway. That would be a very good deed in my book.”
That attitude, Voepel said, is what the WNBA, which relies on children for a large part of its attendance, is counting on.
“Brittney may look different, but that’s not necessarily bad,” she said. “Little kids adore her because, to them, she’s a gentle giant, and they gravitate towards her because they see she’s a nice person.”
Unless her NBA ambitions come true, there’s at least an extra $1 million per year for Griner to make playing overseas, most likely in Russia, plus endorsements.
“I definitely take what people say about what I can do as a player as a compliment,” Griner said. “As far as the commercials and everything else, it’s cool. I’m certainly not going to run from it.”
Not when her longboard is available.