Mercury becomes title favorite with Griner
PHOENIX -- Penny Taylor has recovered from a torn ACL. Diana Taurasi is healthy again and coming off her fifth EuroLeague title. Candice Dupree is back from her knee injury and super sixth woman DeWanna Bonner re-signed after a career year.
Coming off the worst season in franchise history, the Phoenix Mercury and their full-of-stars roster were expected to be back among the WNBA's elite teams this season.
The addition of Brittney Griner ratchets up expectations even more.
Throw the 6-foot-8 swatting and dunking center into the mix of what was already one of the league's most talented rosters and the Mercury aren't just a favorite to win their third WNBA title, they are THE favorite.
"Those are lofty expectations; we haven't even had a full practice yet," Taurasi said Friday during Mercury media day. "But you look around the locker room and we have some of the best players in the world, whether you've been in the league 10 years or whether it's your first week of training camp."
Last season was a forgettable one for the Mercury.
Taylor, a three-time All-Star missed the entire season after tearing her left ACL. Taurasi, the 2009 league and finals MVP, missed half of Phoenix's games due to injuries and the Olympic break. Dupree, a three-time All-Star, missed 21 games with a knee injury.
Bonner set career highs in almost every category, including with 20.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, but the Mercury labored without their other stars and finished 7-27.
But with the disappointing season came a bit of luck: Despite having the league's second-worst record behind Washington, Phoenix won the WNBA lottery for the top pick in this year's draft.
The Mercury, after playing coy heading into the draft, made the selection everyone expected and took Griner, one of the most highly touted players to ever enter the WNBA.
The two-time AP player of the year was a game-changing force in four years at Baylor, dunking with ease, swatting and altering shots, piling up points and rebounds.
In Phoenix, Griner joins a veteran team that's been successful, meaning she won't have to come in and have to do everything like she might have on a young, down-and-out team.
"I can limit her to rebound and block shots, learn as much as you can and play free without any pressure," Mercury coach and general manager Corey Gaines said. "That's better than everything being on her."
The addition of Griner will allow the Mercury to change, or at least enhance, the style they play.
Since he took over as Phoenix's head coach in 2006, Gaines has used a version of the up-tempo system he learned as a point guard under Paul Westhead at Loyola Marymount.
The original system revolved around having a big player who could score down low, the focus on inside-out when the team wasn't in transition. Since the Mercury haven't had a dominant inside player, Gaines altered the system to more of an outside-in approach.
The addition of Griner gives the Mercury the inside presence they've been missing and will allow Gaines to alter his system to best fit that night's opponent or game plan.
"Now I can use outside and inside," Gaines said. "Now we can effectively use the other part of it, which is posting up a big."
Griner also changes what Phoenix will do defensively.
With a long reach and a knack for knowing when and where to challenge, Griner blocked more shots than any man or woman in NCAA history.
As an anchor in the middle of the Mercury's defense, she will not only be there to block shots, but will force teams to alter their shots inside just with her presence, maybe take ones from places on the floor where they don't feel comfortable.
Gaines plans to alter Phoenix's defense this season so it filters shooters to the baseline and toward Griner's long arms. And with her in the middle, the perimeter defenders can be more aggressive and take chances, knowing their big center is back there to make up for any mistakes.
"She's going to change the way teams play offensively," Taurasi said.
First she has to get used to life in the WNBA.
When the Mercury started training camp on Monday, Griner had to adjust to the physicality of practice and found herself waddling later that night because she was so sore.
Griner also has a lot to learn schematically; Gaines had to teach her how to set picks and dive off a pick-and-roll because she had never done one before.
"A lot is happening, just trying to take it a day at a time," Griner said. "It's a new experience, just like waking up for the first day of school every day, so it's always exciting to do something different every day, meet someone new, learn something that I didn't learn before."
So far, Griner has been a quick study, adding to the list of reasons the Mercury will be much better this season.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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