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Blocking shots remains important part of Brittney Griner’s game

On Wednesday, May 23, the Mercury lost to Seattle at home, but Griner still notched three more blocks. (Photo by Nate Fain/Cronkite News)

Nothing is surprising about the way Brittney Griner plays defense.

Listed at 6-foot-8, Griner is truly a sultan of swat, the regent of the rejection. She patrols the inside, stalking the ball as it’s passed around the perimeter, protecting the rim like a fire-breathing dragon guards its loot.

Griner has been doing this her entire basketball life. She won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year all four years she played at Baylor.

As a pro, her shot blocking has only improved. She led the WNBA in blocks in each of her first five seasons. And with 497 blocks in her young career — 2.5 per game this season — she isn’t just on pace to set the all-time record for the statistic. She’s going to squash it like a bug on a windshield.

“She definitely changes the game,” longtime Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said. “She’s an athletic 6-foot-8 so she can alter shots. We’ve never really had a big who can make an impact like that.”

But there’s more to Griner’s shot-altering defensive game than her height. Plenty of WNBA players throughout history have been as tall or taller than her.

However, none have arms like Griner’s.

Technicolored pillars of tattoo ink and muscle, her 7-foot-3.5 wingspan measures longer than most NBA players, including the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.

But the work Griner puts in can’t be denied. To her, shot-blocking is instinctual, developed through hours of practice and years of experience.

“She naturally has that instinct because she’s been doing it for so long,” Hairgrove said. “And she works on timing a lot in practice.”  

Even rule changes couldn’t slow down Griner’s knack for sending it back. Months before she entered the league, the WNBA added the defensive three-second violation, meaning players could no longer just camp in the paint and pounce on dribble-penetrators. It was a big difference from Griner’s college days, but she was able to adjust.

“She’s matured as a player. Playing all year-round, she’s extremely fit and she wants to win,” coach Sandy Brondello said. “I’ve got to remember to give her rest, though. She’s just such a focal point for us.”

As Griner has gained experience, her offensive game has blossomed. Last season she led the WNBA in scoring. Throughout history, some of the greatest basketball players have dialed down their defensive energy to handle more offensive responsibility. And while Griner only recorded 65 blocks last season, a career low, she still led the league in the category and was selected to the All-Defensive Second Team.       

“Whatever my team wants me to do, I just do it,” Griner said. “I try to have my teammates’ back. Even on nights when my offense isn’t going, I can always rely on defense and sometimes that will spark my game.”

Off the court, Griner has a humorous and casual disposition. She has no problem cracking jokes with strangers or going on about her obsession with the video game “Overwatch.”

But on the court she’s stoic, one of the most intimidating players in the league. Any opponent who drives past her initial defender knows Griner will be at the basket, waiting.

“She’s saved my butt a couple times this season already,” point guard Briann January said. “I can corral somebody on the perimeter, and if they get by my contest, they have to handle her. You don’t get that a lot.”  

In 2014, Griner set the record for blocks in a single season with 129 and won her first of two WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards.  

This season, each block will do more than swing momentum or start a fastbreak. Because of the “Brittney Blocks” initiative, ABUS, a security company, will donate $50 to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital for every rejection Griner records.  

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