Commentary

Easy to forget Griner's a freshman

Originally Published: January 14, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has kept rather a poker face about freshman Brittney Griner. When you're a superb card player, you stay cool over a great hand. No need to gush; if it's as good as you think it is, everyone else will know it soon enough.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteOn Jan. 2, 2010, Brittney Griner became the second player to dunk more than once in a women's college game and also set the Baylor season record for blocks (she now has 99 blocks).

Mulkey understands very well the ways the 6-foot-8, dunking, shot-swatting Griner changes how Baylor plays -- and how everyone else plays Baylor. Furthermore, she also can peer into the future and see how Griner's progression will go, and that is truly breathtaking.

When a freshman is averaging 18.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game, you almost have to cackle with glee if you're a Baylor fan. Imagine what she'll do with a little experience and familiarity with her foes.

Mulkey has expertly walked the line so far -- 16 games into Griner's college career -- of lauding her but reminding people not to expect the world every time out. Mulkey, who took a Baylor program that had seven victories the season before she arrived to an NCAA title in her fifth season, is always resistant to letting others set her team's expectations.

For instance, when Baylor lost leading scorer/rebounder Danielle Wilson to a knee injury last season, many observers figured the team was certain to nose dive. Mulkey insisted that wouldn't happen … then led Baylor to the Big 12 tournament title and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance.

Similarly, Mulkey won't put any limits on Griner -- but also understands that as exciting and different a talent as she is, the kid is still a kid.

For all those reasons, it's difficult to imagine a better coach for Griner to play for. But there's another reason, too: Mulkey understands how individual players can have a large and necessary impact on the sport as a whole. She knows because she has been around elite-level women's basketball for so long and appreciates how certain players (and, sometimes, their distinctive personalities) have raised the bar.

During Mulkey's college career at Louisiana Tech in 1980-84, she was part of two national championship teams and went 130-6. But the individual player who stood out above everyone else in that time period was Southern California's Cheryl Miller.

She was a 6-2 player who could handle the ball and distribute like a guard (which seemed almost revolutionary then in the women's game) but also could post up against the best low-block players in the world. She could create her own shot, and she was an extremely effective transition player. Did we mention she could defend any position?

Miller scored 3,018 points and helped USC to two NCAA titles (1983, '84). And there was something else quite special about Miller: She was very openly confident. She did everything with flair and panache. She played the way a "superstar" plays, and her predecessors hadn't gotten the same kind of national attention she did.

Now, it's not that there weren't any previous women's players of Miller's skill level and confidence; 5-11 Lynette Woodard could put on a show, too. She scored 3,649 points, more than anyone else in the history of women's college hoops. But she got less recognition playing in the Midwest, at Kansas, and her college career (1977-81) ended before the NCAA era in women's sports. (The first NCAA-sponsored women's hoops tournament was in 1982.)

Miller finished her college career in 1986; knee problems and the lack of a U.S.-based pro league contributed to her not continuing to play. And although there were numerous outstanding players in the next few years, probably no single player quite transcended the sport the same way Miller had until Texas Tech's Sheryl Swoopes owned the 1993 NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteFour games into her freshman season at Baylor, Brittney Griner dunked on Jacksonville State.

Six-foot Swoopes was speedy, skilled and so adept at finding ways to score that she was basically unstoppable that season. However, Swoopes didn't really receive much attention nationally until her senior year.

That wasn't the case for players such as Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw and UConn's Diana Taurasi, both of whom won three NCAA titles and finished their careers after the WNBA had already begun.

So they stand out on the evolutionary chain, too. They had name recognition even in high school; they fulfilled every expectation once in college; and fans always knew they would see them play professionally.

Holdsclaw brought a kind of dynamic athleticism to the power forward position rarely seen before her, and Taurasi was the 6-foot player who could do everything and, like Miller, never shied away from taking the big shots game after game.

When 6-4 Courtney Paris came to Oklahoma in 2005-06, she was talked about as a game-changer, too. Her sheer strength and what would prove to be astonishing consistency -- she had a streak of 112 consecutive double-doubles -- were qualities that put her on a rather short list of "iconic" players in the women's college game.

Paris didn't win a national championship, though, and that's an undeniable part of how such players are judged. Tennessee's Candace Parker won two of them. That, along with her ability to dunk and her versatile skills at 6-4, made her another player whose profile rose above just the women's basketball world.

Which brings us back to Griner, who, frankly, has physical skills that are unprecedented in the sport. Unlike any women's player we've seen before, multiple styles of dunks are a completely "routine" part of her arsenal. And that brings us to another way she benefits from having Mulkey as a coach. Mulkey very quickly adjusted to the strategic offensive possibilities Griner offers that no other player currently does.

But although her array of dunks understandably is what garners the most attention, Griner's shot-blocking and overall presence on defense are nearly impossible to overstate.

"She can affect your shot," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said, "but she can't affect your swagger unless you let her."

OK, but … it's notable that Coale said that after her Sooners had scored just 47 points against Baylor, with Griner blocking 11 shots. Now that's game-changing.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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