Brittney Griner: NBA-bound?

HOWARD MEGDAL: I believe a woman will play in the NBA in my lifetime. I see no reason to believe all of the varied skills that can lead a person to the NBA are inaccessible to women. Whether it is a sharpshooter with quick release, a freakishly tall center, let alone significant strength, that a woman could possess some of these skills at an NBA level strikes me as a matter of when, not if.

However, my hope that Brittney Griner, the 6’8″ freshman for Baylor, would provide this leap forward for women is not yet supported by her performance on the court. It still may be, but as of yet, there are some glaring holes in her game preventing that.

Let’s start with what she does right. The fantastic Doris Burke pointed out on Monday’s ESPN telecast of Baylor vs. Texas A & M that of the 334 Division I teams, Griner has more blocked shots by herself than 328 of them. She’s averaged better than 6 per game after blocking over 1,000 shots in high school.

Griner is also a terrific passer. Unsurprisingly, she is subjected to endless double teams. Her ability to pick out teammates is obviously enhanced by this, but she can do so even without the double, often quickly shifting the ball to a more favorable spot on the court with a quick-touch pass.

But there are aspects of her game that are holding her back at her current level, let alone things that would disqualify any kind of NBA push.

She is extremely poor at getting and keeping interior position right now. Defenders routinely pushed her out of the box, making her ability to dunk far less dangerous on a regular basis. Tellingly, the 6’8″ Griner has dunked just four times all season. With any kind of regular interior positioning, that should be more like 2-3 times per game.

And while a 6’8″ person wouldn’t be playing the 4-5 positions in the NBA anyway, her speed up and down the court wasn’t sufficient to make up for it. She can close out on perimeter players well, but it is precisely that kind of speed that would need to manifest itself all the time for her to play at the NBA level. Her shooting range would also need to improve.

So what would it take for Griner to make it? Well, if she grew another 4-5 inches, and added a corresponding amount of muscle, her passing and blocked shot skills would become far more useful in the NBA game, while her weaknesses would recede in importance.

And look- she’s 18. My guess is that she didn’t face anything like the competition she’s facing now in high school, and to the extent that she did, her overwhelming height likely made adding such skills of far lesser import. She has four years of college to grow and develop.

My guess is, however, that short of this additional growth- some within her capacity to do (add shooting range, muscle), some up to fate (height), Griner won’t be that first female NBAer. I hope, however, that I am wrong, and will continue checking in on her- regardless of that reality, she is a lot of fun to watch.

JASON CLINKSCALES: A shot-blocking, rebounding, 6-foot-8 presence with a penchant for dunking? It sounds like an amazing NBA prospect, but more so, it’s might be the dream basketball player to take the women’s game to another level. Brittney Griner certainly fits the bill. And while the YouTube legend she built in high school may have started conversations of her playing with the men in the future, she’s really letting her offensive game grow in her first collegiate season with the Baylor Lady Bears.

Griner recorded an impressive double-double against Texas A&M Monday night (22 points, 21 rebounds) to go along with just four blocks. Yeah, let that be said again, just four blocks; her season average is six. Going along with a shade under 19 points per game and nine rebounds; she is showing that she’s far more than the dunking sensation that made her nationally known.

In some respects, Griner reminds me of a highly touted college prospect a couple of years ago named Greg Oden. Both were generally the biggest physical presences on the floor in high school, so their offensive games were never really as developed and challenged as they were in college. She has very good feet, runs the floor well in transition and as Howard mentioned, she has the great passing one should expect from the center position.

Yet, defense is something that doesn’t need a whole lot of work once you have it. A 7-foot-4 wingspan is freakish for any player, but is unique here because she’ll make fleet-footed guards rethink going for layups, even if they are a step or two ahead of her. Oden, in his one season at Ohio State, was the first college big man in years to make people notice his defensive prowess instead of his offensive game.

At Baylor, an established program with designs on another national championship, she will have to grow her offensive game more: hook shots and baby jumpers, of course, but also Griner must use her frame better against forwards and centers that will use upper body strength to compensate for their lack of height on defense.

Howard questions her physical strength and for good reason; at the center position, she looks more like Jared Jefferies than Dwight Howard in terms of being rail thin. Beyond the sheer athleticism in the NBA, where she would struggle in that realm is that for much of her career, she was used to being the last line of defense and playing the pivot. There are already enough men in the NBA playing as unusual pivot men to go against an array of 4s and 5s: New York’s David Lee, new Sacramento King Carl Landry and the enigma that is Atlanta’s Josh Smith. Considering the anomaly of female players at her height, there’s no question of her position on the floor. In the men’s game; she could be but anywhere between a tall shooting guard and an undersized center.

When NBA Commissioner David Stern said that there would be a woman playing with the men within ten years, a lot of eyebrows were raised. Immediately, Griner’s name was thrown into the pot, but without knowing what kind of player she would be in college first. In fact, no one knows what kind of female player would break through into the NBA just yet. What we do know is that even if Griner doesn’t become that player, it doesn’t take away from the greater impact she will have in the WNBA or Europe as she’s part of that next evolution those leagues have been waiting for.

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