Brittney Griner Adds New Dimension To USA World Championship Team
• VIDEO: Griner interview
Standing at 6-foot-8, Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury) changed the dimensions of the USA Basketball Women’s World Championship Team just by being added to the roster.
Her selection to the team, however, wasn’t as simple as walking into the gym, or playing her way onto the team, as you might have expected for the 2014 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and All-WNBA first team selection.
Back on Sept. 9, as hopefuls for the USA team were taking part in training camp, Griner was playing in Game 2 of the WNBA Finals when she suffered an eye injury that not only kept her out of Game 3, but also threatened her chances of joining the USA World Championship Team.
As her Mercury teammates Candice Dupree and Diana Taurasi celebrated their championship before jetting off to Paris to join up with USA Basketball, Griner was awaiting approval from her doctors that her eye had recovered.
“I was worried,” Griner admitted. “I was worried about my eye, honestly. I had a teammate lose her eyesight playing basketball in college, so that was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to make sure my eye was okay, and also, I wanted to play with USA Basketball. So, it would have sucked bad to get bad news twice. When I heard that I was able to come play, I hopped on a plane, came in and started practicing.”
Cleared to compete, Griner met the USA team in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sept. 24, just three days before the USA’s first FIBA World Championship game, which will be against China on Sept. 27, and was named to the roster based on her outstanding ability and track record.
The No. 1 draft pick in 2013, Griner averaged 15.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game this past WNBA season, as well as a league-best 3.8 blocks per game to set the WNBA single-season record for blocked shots with 129 swats. No surprise, she said it’s her favorite part of the game.
“I've always been a shot blocker,” Griner said. “I wasn't a great shot blocker when I first started out. I was very foul prone. Then after a while, I got it down right. My first year of college, I fouled out of a lot of games, but after that, I didn’t foul out anymore.”
In contrast to most of her USA teammates, such as Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), who is playing in an unprecedented fourth World Championship for USA Basketball, Griner is relatively inexperienced. She does, however, have a USA Basketball mini-camp and a five-game European Tour under her belt, and she has played one season for Zhejiang Far East in China, where she averaged 24.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game over 27 games, helping Far East to a 15-7 regular season record and the Women’s China Basketball Association (WCBA) playoff semifinals.
“Playing in China, that definitely helped me out a lot. I feel like I have a little experience, not as much as these women, but I have a little bit.”
The USA mini-camp took place May 10-12, 2011, in Las Vegas, and Griner took part along with 23 other U.S. Olympic Team hopefuls, and then that fall, she played five games from Sept. 30 – Oct. 9 in Italy, Spain and Hungary. In her first game with USA Basketball, she scored a team-high 15 points in a 77-48 win over Familia Schio on Sept. 30 in Propida, Italy, and on Oct. 5, she exploded for 22 points against Ros Casares in Valencia, Spain, though the USA lost 80-76.
That exhibition tour not only helped Griner gain international experience, it taught her about her own game.
“I needed to get better,” Griner said when asked what she learned. “I wasn't ready to play for gold. I wasn't ready to be on that stage yet I don't think. There were so many people who were in front of me.
“It's a different level, even from the WNBA to this level. It's all the best players from every team on one, so you have a team full of great players. And you're playing against great players from other countries. Being with them in practice every day, it showed me what I needed to work on.
“It definitely motivated me. I hate feeling like I'm not where I need to be, so it really pushed me. I've put in a lot of hard work and come a long way since then. I think I'm ready for the challenge now.”
And while she is playing catch-up on a team that has been training since Sept. 8, she is being led by the same head coach, Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut), who guided the USA women in the mini-camp and the European Tour.
“Geno is a great coach,” Griner said. “He's a tough coach. He pushes you. He expects nothing but the best and more. I learned that over years in watching him coach and being in practice with him, so I'm just happy to be here with him and be able to be coached by him.”
She also is playing alongside two of her Mercury teammates, her three-year college teammate at Baylor University – Odyssey Sims (Tulsa Shock) and a former rival in Nnemkadi Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks).
“Being here and being able to play with Odyssey again, we already have that bond from college. And then playing with Candice and Dee for two years, those are familiar faces, and it just helps out a lot. And also playing with Nneka. Me and Nneka go all the way back to high school. She put me out of the state championship like three years in a row, her and her sister. So being able to play with her and have two Houston natives, that's pretty cool as well.”
With her size and skill-set, it’s not difficult for anyone to guess at what her job with the team will be, and Griner is excited to step into that role of defensive anchor.
Her role may be a natural fit for her, but so far what has been unnatural is the time different of nine hours between Phoenix and Istanbul.
“The hardest thing is getting over this jet lag,” Griner said. “I keep waking up and random times, and it's just horrible.”
That is a small price to pay, however, for the pride of representing her country, which is something that hits close to home for Griner.
“It's the biggest stage you can get on,” Griner said. “You are playing for your country. You are doing something for your country, and that's big to me. I have military in my family – my dad is in the Marines. He fought for our country. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Obviously, I took a different route. I'm playing basketball. So, I might not be able to fight for my country, but I'm able to play basketball, and it means everything to me.”
It will be Griner’s first major international game when she takes the floor with the USA on Sept. 27, and basketball fans around the globe likely will see a lot more of her in the future. Catch the game on NBA TV, ESPN3 and FIBA TV at 2:30 p.m. EDT.