How Brittney Griner Changes the Game

She can dunk, but that's only the beginning of the Baylor star's impact.
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From the moment we first saw the YouTube videos of her dunking in a game, Brittney Griner's legacy was pretty much set in stone. For the mainstream sports fan, she was “that girl who can dunk.” It had been done before, and there are players physically capable who haven't done in games. But Griner, who didn’t need a clear path (either on a fast break or from a scattered defense) to showcase her ability could make dunking a legitimate part of  game situations.

As Baylor Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey said recently, Griner has changed her as a coach by allowing her to add plays designed to be finished above the rim. But it goes further than that. With Griner, the dunk no longer has to be orchestrated, or set up to exploit a special set of circumstances. While she broke Candace Parker’s women’s basketball record for dunks in a NCAA tournament with a two-handed jam against Georgia Tech in this year’s Sweet 16, it’s the dunk off a drop step in traffic against the Florida Gators in the second round that better illustrates Griner’s uniqueness. It’s that kind of unexceptional yet spontaneous dunk without warning that sets her apart.

Griner has made the dunk a legitimate weapon on the court rather than just a cheap thrill. Yet perhaps paradoxically, her ability to magnify the highlight-worthy part of the game has obfuscated the full extent of her impact on women’s basketball

Prior to her Final Four meeting with Baylor on Sunday, Stanford Cardinal forward Nneka Ogwumike described Griner's combination of athleticism, size, and skill as “a triple dagger” that opponents have to grapple with. That she's 6’8” allows her to dunk with a level of ease in traffic that has eluded even more athletic players such as Ogwumike, Tennessee's Glory Johnson and Oklahoma State's Toni Young. A discussion of the evolution of post play in women's basketball goes well beyond Griner, but suffice it to say that the very basic skill of executing a drop step is not something that every post in women’s college basketball possesses.

Griner's 200+ blocks this season represent the defensive facet of this ”dagger”; her presence in the paint alone completely changes how teams play the game to the point where Mulkey has said that it's hard to scout opponents, as they'll inevitably play Baylor differently than they play any other team. Baylor's opponents shot the third-most threes in the nation this year yet only made 26.2%. The 551 missed threes that Baylor opponents put up were more than many teams in the nation even shot this season. Often times, the threes come from teams slowly retreating beyond the arc as they decide trying to score in the paint is futile; other times, teams simply come out with the mindset that they're going to have to live with the three or die with the three in order to beat Baylor with that imposing 6-foot-8 presence in the middle.

Either way, nobody has succeeded in beating them this season and only four teams even had a lead on Baylor in the second half this season: a talented Tennessee Lady Vols team that few teams match up with well at every position; St. John's and Texas Tech Lady Raiders teams with athletic guards who make it hard on Baylor to initiate their offense; and an Iowa State team that chose to force Griner to chase 6'7" center Anna Prins off of screens for threes, which was almost as much of a spectacle to witness as Griner's very presence. The Cardinal leaned toward the latter route, positioning Ogwumike in the high post to draw Griner away from the basket; unfortunately, nobody outside of Ogwumike found a way to score consistently and the slow retreat to the perimeter was probably more evident in where the guards tentatively initiated the offense than their three point attempts.

Griner is a game-changer, not just in the colloquial sense of shifting the momentum on any given day but in the broader sense of literally changing the principles by which opponents play the game. But it’s not at all just because of the dunk. That's part of what makes focusing on Griner's dunking ability sort of awkward—it's not even the beginning of what has made her such a transformative player.

"It’d be two points," said Stanford's Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer in the lead-up to the Final Four in response to a question about how she viewed the potential of Griner dunking against her team in a game. "Can she dunk from 3? We’re not going to have a breakdown about it—as long as it’s not the winning basket."

Griner is not like some of her male counterparts, for whom their ability to dunk is the defining feature of an offensive arsenal limited to five feet from the basket. Hers includes turnaround jumpers from either side of the basket and above average footwork. But if you were tune in to a Lady Bears game already in the mindset of waiting to see a dunk, it would be hard not to come away disappointed, whether Griner throws one down or not; even if Griner has added an above the rim element to women's basketball, the game as a whole is still played below the rim and more heavily predicated on movement, skill, and team chemistry rather than the type of athleticism and power that can define the men's game. That's not an argument for purity, a nebulous concept that is difficult to define, but a heightened focus on the fine details that might separate a beautiful play from a highlight reel dunk; it's truly more of a finesse game than a power game on the whole.

The somewhat disproportionate attention to Griner's ability to dunk both obscures the extent of her effect on the game and sets up a barrier to appreciating the more appealing parts of the games she plays in. Griner's dunks wouldn't even hold the attention of someone whose favorite aspect of basketball is the dunk because they happen so infrequently.

Women's basketball legend Lisa Leslie, who was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game, probably framed the role of the dunk in women's basketball best in a recent interview with espnW about her first dunk in saying that, "It was really just for the entertainment value of it because it really didn't translate into my game. Like I'd dunk in practice or warm-ups, but once the game started it never really entered my mind."

Given the hegemony of highlight reel basketball in the mainstream consciousness, it's hard to imagine a world in which Griner's college basketball legacy isn't the fact that she can dunk. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But to fully appreciate the women’s game as it currently stands, dunking has to become more of an afterthought for observers than the main event that Griner’s subsuming presence has made it in the mainstream, regardless of whether others come along and do it more often at some point in the future.


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