Wednesday, March 20, 2013 8:33 pm
Column: Can Brittney Griner save the WNBA?
By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist
That's the beauty of the NCAA men's tournament, where this year there are more questions than ever about which schools are pretenders and which are contenders. Even the wise guys in Vegas don't really seem to know, with seven teams - including Kansas and Gonzaga all listed at 12-1 or better to win the national title.
There's no such debate on the women's side. Brittney Griner and her Baylor teammates are pretty much locks to be cutting down the nets in New Orleans on a second straight national title.
Critics will say that's part of what is wrong with women's basketball on the college level. Schools like Tennessee, Connecticut and now Baylor can reign for years if they manage to land the right player.
Basketball purists who enjoy the women's game - and, yes, they're out there - will argue that's just fine. They've had the privilege for the last four years of watching the most dominant player in college, the first woman, perhaps, who can sell tickets just by showing up.
You've seen her on the highlight shows, where she gets an uncommon amount of attention for the simple reason that she can dunk. That separates her from almost every female player before her, but it sells the 6-foot-8 Griner short.
Just ask one of her admirers.
"It's not like she's just catching and laying it or dunking every time," LeBron James said. "She's shooting turnaround jumpers. She's drop-stepping over her left shoulder, right shoulder, shooting jumpers. She's got a fade away jumper. And she's dunking the ball too. She's great."
That's what makes a lot of people in the WNBA salivate when they hear Griner's name. It's a foregone conclusion she'll be the No. 1 pick of the Phoenix Mercury in the draft on April 15.
More importantly, she could be the one player who can get non-believers to tune in. And that would be welcome news for a league that, approaching its 17th season, still struggles to win eyeballs.
"Somebody like Brittney we haven't seen," said Mercury vice president Ann Meyers Drysdale. "Certainly she's going to change the dynamic of the game."
Already the league has changed is rules in anticipation of her arrival. No one came out and said that a new 3-second rule for clogging the lane on defense was instituted for the upcoming season with Griner in mind, but after playing 16 years without it, the timing certainly is suspicious, at best.
The Mercury will surely use the No. 1 pick on Griner, though Drysdale is quick to say the team has not formally said who it is taking. She would join Diana Taurasi, on a Phoenix team that would immediately be a title favorite.
Right now, though, there's still a little more college work to be done. Baylor opens defense of its title Sunday night at home against Prairie View, and the competition will get tougher as the tournament goes on.
When you're 72-1 over the last two seasons, though, it doesn't matter who you play. Especially not when your center can score from anywhere within 15 feet, isn't afraid to dish out assists to teammates, and has averaged 5.1 blocks a game over her career.
If there's one knock on Griner it's that she's not a great rebounder. But that should come as she adapts to the faster and more physical pro game, both in the WNBA and overseas during the offseason.
"She's young and going to get better," Drysdale said. "She will get stronger, her footwork will get better and her shot selection will change as she understands the game better."
For someone who didn't play organized ball until ninth grade, Griner has already shown remarkable improvement. On senior night against Kansas State earlier this month she scored a Big 12 record 50 points on 21-28 shooting, had an in-your-face dunk, and pretty much looked like she was a grown woman playing among girls.
Yes, she makes the highlight reels because she can dunk. But she's so dominant that opponents shoot more 3-pointers against Baylor than ever before for fear of tangling in the paint, where Baylor averages 44.3 points compared to just 18.6 for its opponents.
Ask her about her big games, though, and Griner remembers the ones that weren't so good. With only four losses in the last three years - including one this year to Stanford - they stick out.
"The games where you lose, that sits on you, you always remember that - 15 years from now I'll be able to tell you about the (Texas) A&M loss, the Stanford loss, the Connecticut loss," Griner said. "I'll be able to tell you about those, about what I did wrong. You ask me about a 40-point game, and I'm like, huh? You have to remind me."
Others simply remember the dunks. She's had 14 of them in her career and, if she isn't the greatest women collegiate player ever, she's certainly the greatest dunker and inside presence ever.
That will sell some tickets in the WNBA, a league desperate to get people in seats. Last year the WNBA had its lowest average regular-season attendance, 7,457 fans a game, since its inception in 1997.
As Drysdale is quick to point out, though, it took decades for the NBA to really catch on. She and others believe the market is still there to grow, in Phoenix and elsewhere.
With Griner playing the starring role, it could be a slam dunk.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg