PHOENIX – Brittney Griner can dunk.
Not only on breakaways and not those squeeze-it-over-the-rim ones that just don’t look right.
One-handed, two-handed, on the move, off a drop step, even on alley-oops, though she hasn’t pulled that one off in a game – at least not yet.
Emphatic, too, unlike any woman before her.
Griner’s dunking dexterity has made her a celebrity, a regular on the sports highlight shows and a recognizable name even to casual sports fans.
Brittney Griner is far from a dunking novelty act.
Long, athletic, dominating defensively, offensively gifted, ferocious rebounder, gregarious and honest, the Phoenix Mercury center has the kind of star power that may reach well beyond her 7-4 wingspan.
“Even if people don’t know her or know about her game, they’ve heard about the girl that can dunk,” said Minnesota Lynx guard/forward Seimone Augustus, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 WNBA draft. “So they’re going to want to see what she can do on this level.”
Griner was the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, the top peg on a top-loaded board that also included stars-in-the-making Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins.
Delle Donne figures to help Chicago reach the playoffs after the Sky just missed last season, and the Tulsa Shock are hoping Diggins will team with Candice Wiggins to create an unstoppably-quick backcourt.
The 6-8 Griner faces a much taller order.
Not only is she being counted on to lead the Mercury to a third WNBA title, she’s expected to open a gateway from the WNBA to new fans across the United States and beyond.
No pressure at all for a 22-year-old.
“It’s our responsibility (to watch out for her), but it’s also our responsibility to help the league,” Mercury coach and general manager Corey Gaines said. “And it’s not just Phoenix. It’s not just the WNBA. It’s the world now. The world wants to know about her.”
What fans know most about Griner is her ability to dunk.
Once reluctant to try the rarest of shots in the women’s game, she embraced it during her final season at Baylor, throwing it down 11 times on her way to a record 18 for her career.
Griner’s ability to dunk with such ease separated her from her peers, gave her an identity beyond the confines of a sport that always has been outside the reaches of the spotlight shining on the above-the-rim-all-the-time men’s game.
But one shot, no matter how eye-popping it may be, does not define Griner’s dominance.
There have been players as tall her in the women’s game but none with her graceful athletic ability.
With a stride likened to a gazelle and agility usually found in players much shorter, Griner has a dominating synergy to her game, altering the way opponents play at both ends.
On offense, her ability to shoot over defenders, get to the rim or score on a variety of jump hooks and turnaround jumpers forces teams to collapse, opening up shots for perimeter players.
Griner has even more of an impact on defense, not just by blocking shots – she had more of those than any man or woman in NCAA history – but with a long-armed presence that has shooters constantly looking over their shoulders, altering their shots inside or shooting from a range where they’re not as comfortable.
Indiana may be the defending WNBA champions, and Minnesota has four All-Stars, but teaming Griner with players such as Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner has made the Mercury the favorites to win this year’s title; 33 percent of the league’s general managers pick them to win.
“She’s going to have an impact,” said Lynx forward Maya Moore, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. “There’s no one really like her so she’s going to create a unique challenge for teams defensively and offensively. I think it’s going to be a fun challenge. She’s going to do things that other players can’t do.”
She’s also being counted on to do more than swat shots and rattle rims.
The WNBA has had its share of players who came into the league with plenty of hype, from Chamique Holdsclaw to Taurasi to Candace Parker.
Few have generated the kind of buzz Griner has circulating around her.
Television has hitched its wagon to Griner, too, starting with Monday’s home opener.
“I’m up for it,” Griner said. “I don’t want to be one of those players that locks herself away and be nonaccessible to the fans, media. I want to be accessible to everybody.”
That’s what the Mercury and the WNBA would like to see.
Well, that and a few dunks.
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this story.