Brittney Griner’s return has been the positive storyline the WNBA has wanted, overshadowing just about every talking point in this still-young season which includes the league’s punishment earlier this month against the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces for their negotiations with Dearica Handy who was traded to Los Angeles in January.
No one knew what to expect when Brittney Griner returned to the basketball court.
The lengthy layoff due to her being imprisoned in a Russian jail, the ramp-up to improve her conditioning, the re-acclimation to life in the United States—no one would think any less of her if all those factors swirled together and made her actual return to the basketball court a not-so-great experience.
And yet here we are in the infancy stage of yet another WNBA season, and Griner has looked like, well, Brittney Griner—a dominant force at both ends of the court for the Phoenix Mercury.
In her first home game, a 75-69 loss to the Chicago Sky, Griner had a double-double of 27 points on 9-for-13 shooting along with 10 rebounds.
Seeing her on the floor after more than 300 days in a Russian jail, was an emotional moment for many—Griner included.
“There might have been a little dust in my eye, a little dusty,” she told reporters after the game. “It was emotional in the back, seeing some of the clips and then coming out. ... It was really good.
Griner added, “Part of the process of healing is kind of just letting it out. So yeah, I got choked up a little bit but [I tried to] hide it, but I see you caught it.”
And that healing Griner alluded to is what makes her story one that’s only going to gain greater significance as the season progresses.
The 6-foot-9 center was a big deal prior to her incarceration in Russia; she’s an even bigger deal now.
Like most great athletes, Griner’s basketball gravitas allows her to have a presence that’s unmistakeable, regardless of what she does on the basketball court.
In many respects, she has the ability to not just elevate the game but also shift the focus towards her mostly-positive narrative while taking some of the attention off some of the not-so-nice happenings throughout the WNBA.
Among those is the punishment handed out to the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces for the way they handled the trading away of Dearica Hamby to the Los Angeles Defenders prior to the Jan. 21 trade deadline.
Hamby, who signed a contract extension with the Aces shortly before being traded, said she was falsely accused by the Aces of signing a contract extension when she knew she was pregnant and added that she was told she was being traded because, “I wouldn’t be ready and we need bodies.”
On the eve of the season starting, the WNBA announced the Aces would have to forfeit their 2025 first round pick along with head coach Becky Hammon being suspended for the first two games of the season as part of the Aces punishment for violating the league’s “Respect in the Workplace” policy.
Hammon told reporters that she was told by the league that a private conversation with Hamby that included her asking about Hamby’s pregnancy, was in violation of the policy.
But Hammon spelled out exactly why they traded the All-Star and two-time winner of the league’s Sixth Woman of the Year award.
“We made the decision to move Hamby because we could get three bodies in for her one contract,” Hammon told reporters. “And we wanted to get three more people in.”
There are many additional layers and intricate talking points that are connected to the Aces-Hamby situation. But you won’t hear much if anything about them in the coming days and weeks, courtesy of Griner whose return to play is easily the biggest story in the WNBA right now.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Aces opened the season with a 105-64 thrashing of the Seattle Storm without Hammon on the sidelines.
Throw in the fact that the WNBA is looking to ride a wave of momentum from a season in which viewership in 2022 was up 16 percent along with the interest generated by the NCAA Women’s Tournament, the "W" has what looks to be the potential for even more viewers and followers of the game.
Those are all big-time pluses for the WNBA, the kind of success that can only be amplified by the return of one of its best players, Brittney Griner.