By JOHN MARSHALL
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.
But she 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-foot-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-foot-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 U.S. 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 has always 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 like 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 to pick them to do it.
“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.
The Phoenix sports market, which can be blase about local teams unless they’re winning, seems to have embraced Griner’s arrival, with her image repeatedly splashed across the local newspapers, not to mention a multi-story banner of her dunking hanging from downtown building across from the US Airways.
The Mercury have, not surprisingly, crafted their marketing and ticketing promotions around Griner, but so have other teams around the league, touting home games against the No. 1 pick to potential ticket buyers.
Television has hitched onboard as well, with Griner and the Mercury appearing on six of the 14 games on ESPN and ABC, starting with Monday’s home opener.
Griner also became the first openly-gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike and seems to have the kind bubbly, goofy-in-a-good-way personality that will allow her to shoulder the weight of all the expectations being placed upon her wide shoulders.
“She likes the spotlight in a positive way where she’s not going to crumble under it,” Taurasi said. “She’s not going to hide under any rock. I think she’s done a great job of being who she is no matter what. It tells a lot about her character, about the way she was brought up and now it will translate to the basketball court.”
On the court, Griner will have a learning curve.
Many times in college, she could just turn and shoot over defenders. That won’t always be the case in the WNBA, which also is far more physical than the college game, as she found out the first day of training camp.
Griner still needs to learn the nuances of the pro game and Gaines’ up-tempo system — she had to be taught how to work a pick-and-roll at the start of camp — and has started working on the skyhook, recently taught to her by the master, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Griner tends to pick up things quick and has been a quick study in her short time with the Mercury.
The key will be making sure all the other outside elements don’t interfere with what her main purpose is: help her team win basketball games.
“I’m up for it,” Griner said. “I don’t want to be one of those players that locks herself away and be non-accessible to the fans, media. I want to be accessible to everybody.”
That’s what the Mercury and the WNBA would like that to see.
Well, that and a few dunks.
W L Pct GB
Atlanta 0 0 .000 —
Chicago 0 0 .000 —
Connecticut 0 0 .000 —
Indiana 0 0 .000 —
New York 0 0 .000 —
Washington 0 0 .000 —
W L Pct GB
Los Angeles 0 0 .000 —
Minnesota 0 0 .000 —
Phoenix 0 0 .000 —
San Antonio 0 0 .000 —
Seattle 0 0 .000 —
Tulsa 0 0 .000 —
Indiana at San Antonio, 2 p.m.