It’s promising news for the basketball world, although since Griner’s release last week, most WNBA players, executives and fans have tried not to fixate on what her return to the United States would mean for the star’s basketball future or whether she’d ever set foot on the court again.
“We’ll follow her lead, we’ll do whatever she wants,” Mercury president Vince Kozar told ESPN last week. “Part of the joy that she’s brought to people is how she plays and the way she plays and who she is when she plays.
“And I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was some kind of anticipation or excitement about the idea that everyone would get to experience that again, but that’s not what matters most.”
Still, the game hasn’t seemed too far from Griner’s mind since returning home. She did a light basketball workout Sunday, ESPN reported, where her first act was a dunk.
The prospect of Griner — a WNBA champion, eight-time All-Star, three-time first-team All-WNBA selection and former MVP contender — taking the floor with the Mercury when the season tips May 19, about 23 weeks after her release, is thrilling for basketball enthusiasts, both those who have followed Griner’s storied career since her Baylor days and those who have started following her story more closely over the past year.
ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton, Alexa Philippou and M.A. Voepel analyze what Griner’s announcement means for the Mercury, Phoenix’s free agency focus, Griner’s basketball career and more.
What questions does Griner’s return immediately answer for the Mercury?
Griner’s return clarifies the style of play we can expect from Phoenix.
The Mercury’s unexpected surge to claim a playoff spot came in unorthodox style without Griner and fellow All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith (away from the team for personal reasons) and Diana Taurasi (quadriceps injury). After parting ways with Tina Charles midseason, Phoenix leaned into small ball, with first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard playing a frontcourt of 6-foot-1 Sophie Cunningham and 6-3 Brianna Turner.
Getting 6-9 Griner back immediately makes small ball a memory for the Mercury. With her and Turner, Phoenix is covered in the frontcourt, reuniting the duo who led the team to the 2021 WNBA Finals. Griner was a dominant force in that postseason, averaging 21.8 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 3.0 APG and shooting 56% from the field.
Technically, Griner is an unrestricted free agent because the WNBA honored the final season of her contract in 2022 while she was wrongfully imprisoned. Because the Mercury used the core designation on Griner when she reached free agency in 2020 and signed a three-year contract, she’s no longer eligible to be designated a core player.
Still, Griner’s statement made it clear she intends to return to the WNBA in Phoenix. So the Mercury can count on having both her and Taurasi, who indicated last month that she’s planning to return for a 19th season in the Valley. — Kevin Pelton
What questions still linger for the team and how might they affect how the Mercury approach free agency?
Sources told ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss the Mercury’s priority is re-signing Griner.
Still, that leaves plenty of question marks. Phoenix’s third cornerstone, Diggins-Smith, announced in October that she’s expecting her second child. Besides Diggins-Smith and Turner, the Mercury have just one other player under contract for 2023: forward Diamond DeShields.
Phoenix’s other free agents include Cunningham (who is restricted) and 2021 starter Kia Nurse, who missed all of last season rehabilitating the ACL injury she suffered during the Mercury’s playoff run. If both Griner and Taurasi return at their previous supermax salaries, it likely won’t be realistic for Phoenix to re-sign both Cunningham and Nurse while staying under the WNBA’s hard salary cap.
Because of the DeShields trade, the Mercury don’t have a first-round pick this year, which will make upgrading the roster challenging — but not nearly as difficult as replacing Griner’s production was last season. — Pelton
After 10 months of detainment, what might we expect from Griner physically?
We don’t know. It’s difficult to project where Griner will physically be by May 19, the Mercury’s season opener at the Los Angeles Sparks (May 21 is the Mercury’s home opener at Footprint Center). That’s 154 days from now, about half the time Griner was detained in Russia. Delving back into the demands of being a pro athlete after 10 months of little-to-no physical activity — at least compared with the standard high-level athletes typically train at — will be a challenge unlike any Griner has faced before.
Just as important as her physical health, if not more so, is Griner’s mental health. Even before her detainment in Russia, Griner had publicly disclosed that she has sought mental health treatment and said the need to address her mental health caused her to depart the 2020 WNBA bubble early. Monitoring how Griner is faring mentally in the months (and years) after her release, and as she attempts to make her basketball return, will no doubt be a priority of those in her camp.
Before her wrongful detainment, Griner had a relatively healthy professional career, playing 254 games across nine seasons, averaging no fewer than 25.9 minutes per game a season and 30-plus minutes in all but two seasons.
The last time we saw her on the floor in the WNBA, in 2021, she came in second in MVP voting after going on a tear in the second half of the regular season, ultimately propelling the Mercury to a surprising spot in the 2021 WNBA Finals, where they fell to the Chicago Sky.
Do those pre-2022 numbers tell us much about what her future in the WNBA could look like, especially in early goings of the 2023 season? Maybe not, and understandably so given the life-changing experience Griner just went through. But if the Mercury’s statements are any indication, whether Griner can replicate her pre-detainment level of play isn’t of the utmost importance. — Alexa Philippou
What does Griner bring to the Mercury beyond her on-court skills?
For the most part, Griner has been an uplifting presence for the Mercury and someone who gets along well and communicates with her teammates. She can facilitate communication even between teammates who otherwise might not relate well.
In the 2020 COVID-19 bubble season, Griner took care to address her mental health, action she was very open about, and left the bubble early. But for the most part, she has been a big part of the Mercury’s cohesion over the years.
Last season, the Mercury lacked that. With a new coach, the everyday concern over Griner’s well-being, obvious friction between Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, Charles’ departure and injuries, it seemed kind of miraculous Phoenix even made the playoffs. Turner, who was one of the rocks of the team, acknowledged after the first-round loss to the Las Vegas Aces that she hoped she never had to experience a season like it again. The Mercury missed Griner’s personality a lot.
But looking for light in that darkness, note that Turner and Cunningham improved as players, both taking on greater responsibilities. Both also have good friendships with Griner. If Cunningham returns as a free agent, those three are a good core of positive vibes for the Mercury.
Everyone who knows Griner describes her as someone who typically has a chill, easy-going personality and wants everyone to get along. She can facilitate that at times by making a joke or being “goofy” because she doesn’t really bring ego into team dynamics. It’s hard to gauge how what she has been through might affect her psyche. But her willingness this early after her incarceration to address her basketball future indicates she still sees the sport as she always has: more of her safe place and sanctuary. — M.A. Voepel