Jessica Hill/Associated Press
BRISTOL, Conn. – Brittney Griner is ready for a new challenge.
After dominating women’s college basketball for the last four years, Griner will head to Phoenix. The Mercury took the two-time AP Player of the Year with the top pick in the WNBA draft Monday night.
The city welcomed her with a giant billboard and renamed a street near the arena.
Griner admitted she was nervous before the draft despite knowing she was going to be taken first.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack at the table,” she said.
Griner is excited about getting the chance to play with Diana Taurasi and the other talented players on the Mercury.
“I’m bringing the dunking element of my game to Phoenix,” Griner said. “Everyone would love to see Dee throw that alley-oop, I catch it and slam it – the high energy I bring to the table.”
Mercury coach Corey Gaines said it took about a second for the team to decide on their choice.
“I think with the talent we have already, and it’s not going to be all forced on her to do everything, it makes her even more of a game-changer because there’s no pressure on her, she can just do the things that she does naturally – rebound, block shots, putbacks and then as it goes on, she’ll learn more,” Gaines said.
The 6-8 star finished as the second all-time scorer in women’s NCAA history, with 3,283 points. She owns the shot block record, shattering both the men’s and women’s college marks with 748. She also had a record 18 dunks – including 11 this season.
WNBA President Laurel Richie opened the draft by offering the league’s thoughts and prayers to those affected by the bombings in Boston. She said earlier in the evening the WNBA had discussions whether to hold the draft before deciding to go ahead with it.
Soon after the draft started, she announced Griner as the first choice.
Griner joins a very talented Mercury squad that was plagued by injuries most of last season. Taurasi played in only eight games, and Penny Taylor missed the entire year while recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Candice Dupree also missed 21 games because of a knee injury.
“I’m ready to get there and ready to learn from (Taurasi),” Griner said. “I got to play with her a little bit at USA Basketball. I’m ready to feed off her and give all I can to the Phoenix Mercury.”
Phoenix had the second-worst record and a 28-percent chance of getting the first pick. Washington, which had the worst record in the league, picked fourth.
“We have a team of All-Stars already,” Phoenix Mercury President Amber Cox said. “To add her to the mix solidifies us for a long time. When Phoenix comes to town it will be must-see basketball.”
The Mercury have had the first pick in the draft two other times, including when they took Taurasi in 2004.
It was an eventful day for Griner. Not only was she the top pick, but she bumped into her skateboarding idol, Tony Hawk, who also was at ESPN.
“Getting drafted being the No. 1 overall pick, that was above it, but Tony’s right there at No. 2,” Griner said.
Like Phoenix, Chicago added a budding star to an already stacked roster that just missed making the playoffs last season, taking Elena Delle Donne with the No. 2 pick. The 6-5 forward, who can play multiple positions, was second in the nation in scoring (26.0) and averaged 8.5 rebounds. She finished her career at Delaware with 3,039 career points – fifth all-time in NCAA history.
“This is a phenomenal team I’m joining, mentors who will help me out along the way,” Delle Donne said. “I’ll learn a ton from these players. We definitely have a great team. I felt I was a good puzzle piece for this team. You don’t say where you want to go before it was happening, but Chicago was my pick, and I wanted to go there really badly.”
Tulsa took Notre Dame guard Skylar Diggins with the third pick. Diggins averaged 17.1 points, 6.1 assists and 3.1 steals while helping the Irish reach the Final Four the last three seasons.
“When I entered Notre Dame, we had lost in the first round of the tournament the year before,” Diggins said. “At the end of my career we had brought the program back to an elite level. I’m looking forward to get to Tulsa and show my leadership skills.”
While the first three picks were almost a lock, the rest of the draft was a bit more of a mystery with no clear-cut choices going in.
Washington took Ohio State guard Tayler Hill fourth.
“I didn’t know for sure,” Hill said. “I talked to a few WNBA coaches. I talked to coach (Mike) Thibault a few times, and he was excited about me. I’m excited, really a feeling you can’t explain.”
The New York Liberty and new coach Bill Laimbeer took Texas A&M’s Kelsey Bone fifth and then two picks later drafted Oklahoma State’s Toni Young. Seattle, which will be without Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird this season because of injuries, took Maryland’s Tianna Hawkins in between the Liberty picks.
San Antonio took Syracuse center Kayla Alexander eighth, Cal’s Layshia Clarendon went ninth to Indiana. Los Angeles took Kentucky’s A’dia Mathies 10th. Connecticut drafted UConn forward Kelly Faris 11th, and Minnesota closed out the first round by picking Nebraska’s Lindsey Moore.
“There’s no question that this draft class has potential to be a moment in time, and we’ll look back 10, 20 years and remember that class that came in with Brittney, Skylar and Elena,” Richie said. “Having spent the last two days with a couple of the other prospects, there are a couple surprises in there, too.”
This was the first season that the draft was televised in prime time.
Training camps will open May 5, with the league’s 17th season set to begin May 24.