Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NCW Preview 2011 [Print without images]

Friday, November 11, 2011
ESPN.com's preseason player of year

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

Baylor's Brittney Griner talks about her expanded leadership role this season.

You can envision Brittney Griner as better than ever this season, right? A junior now, having experienced playing overseas with the national team. Fueled, along with the rest of her teammates, by the motto of "unfinished business."

That's written on rubber bracelets the Lady Bears wear to remind them -- as if they could possibly forget -- about falling short of the national championship in 2011. They lost to Texas A&M in the NCAA Elite Eight.

"Everybody is supposed to wear them in practice," Griner said of the bracelets. "Actually, we're supposed to wear them all the time. But in practice, it's mandatory."

You can picture Griner -- the 6-foot-8 center with soft hands and impossibly long arms -- swatting away even more shots, backing down more helpless defenders, slamming home more dunks, finding the open shooter more times to frustrate triple-teaming opponents.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner blocked nearly twice as many shots last season (170) than all of Baylor's 2010-11 opponents combined (96).

You can easily see why we picked Griner -- who averaged 23.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in 2010-11 -- as ESPN.com's preseason player of the year. But … can you imagine Griner as a comedian? Because she's that, too.

Take her recounting the story of how her skateboard -- a longboard, to be more specific -- bit the dust earlier this year.

"My old board got broken by a bus. I almost got hit," she said, with a trace of a smile.

What???

"Oh, it sounds bad, but it wasn't that bad," Griner said, now grinning. "The board got the bad end of it."

Uhhh … explain, please.

"I was going up the driveway, hit a twig, started rolling back … and then I saw the bus," she said. "And I just jumped off. The board didn't make it. It almost did. It missed the first set of wheels, but those back wheels? Snapped it right in half."

You might be thinking that Baylor coach Kim Mulkey would practically have a heart attack reading that. Nope. She knows of Griner's hobbies like skateboarding, and was aware of the first longboard's unfortunate demise.

"I walked in her office the other day with a longboard," Griner said. "And she said, 'Oh, you got another one!'

"I am definitely a risk-taker. I've always been like that. I broke my go-kart when I was younger, jumping hills. I like risks, I guess. And I'm a little spontaneous."

She's kind of a 10-year-old at heart -- someone who loves to have fun, dance, sing, tell jokes and make people laugh.

"Coming out of high school, I didn't feel like I was reserved, but I guess I was a little bit," said Griner, from Nimitz High in Houston. "Now I'm just letting everybody see the real me. Acting silly sometimes. I'm not just about basketball. The longboard threw everybody for a loop, though. They saw me going to class on it and were like, 'Um, Brittney? Really?'"

The thing is, Griner is athletic and well-coordinated enough that skateboarding isn't something out of her comfort zone. Not to be unkind to any big women of the past in women's hoops, but the idea of some of them trying to skateboard immediately makes you think of a cartoon image swathed head to toe in bandages.

Griner, however, is light on her feet, with good balance and more strength this year. All of which will be abundantly clear to those already worried about guarding her.

"Brittney will continue to get stronger," Mulkey said. "She's added 20 pounds, and I think that's going to help her with all the banging she has to endure on the low block.

"She wants to be an all-around player, but she's a post who needs to be dominant in the paint. And she knows that. But the child in her comes out -- 'I want to shoot more 3s! I want to put it on the floor more!'"

Time spent with coach Geno Auriemma and the national team on a European tour this summer further affirmed to Griner everything that Mulkey has told her.

Brittney Griner
Coach Kim Mulkey says Brittney Griner added 20 pounds to help her be stronger in the paint this season.

"It was work, but fun -- the whole experience of learning with the pros and players that I've always wanted to play with and have watched," Griner said. "And the culture over there; I loved everything. I took it all in. Learning from Coach Auriemma was amazing; he is a great coach.

"One thing he told me is to never lose that drive that college players have. And he also told me that you can have all the moves in the world and still not be that great. But if you have two or three that are go-to moves that are unstoppable, and you perfect them, it will take you a long way."

Some might suggest that Auriemma wouldn't want to give Griner too much advice. Seeing as how his UConn team faces the Lady Bears at Baylor on Dec. 18 and might even meet them again in the Final Four, as the Huskies did when Griner was a freshman.

But when he's in USA Basketball mode, Auriemma doesn't think that way. He wants what's best for the American team, and Griner might be on it for the London Olympics. Her thoughts now, though, are all on Baylor and what needs to be done to win an NCAA title.

Baylor's only key loss from last season is senior guard Melissa Jones, who will be very difficult to replace from an energy and leadership standpoint.

"I'm going to try to walk in MJ's footsteps, but it's a group effort," Griner said. "Everybody has to be dedicated to it, and I feel everybody is in practice. Each day, it will be somebody different.

"We're not relying on one person to be that motivator. It's everybody in a joint effort to clap, thank the person for making a good pass, hitting the floor -- we've all been doing that in practice. And I'm proud of everybody for trying to be MJ."

Mulkey thinks Griner was a very good understudy to Jones in the leadership department.

"Brittney played a huge role in that last year," Mulkey said. "Probably better than I thought she would, being a sophomore. And I think what we have to find is somebody now to go with her. I hope that person emerges, who'll say, 'I will help you lead this team, Brittney.'"

It could be point guard Odyssey Sims, a sophomore who immediately was thrown into the fire last year and responded well. But she's learning to be more vocal and upbeat. Griner is helping with that, too.

"We played together before we got here, in AAU ball," Griner said of Sims, who is from Irving, Texas. "So I've known her for a long time. Our relationship on and off the court is good; I'll talk to her in practice a lot. She sometimes gets down; Coach is on her because she's the point guard, and Coach is always on her point guard hard. I'll go over and tell her, 'It's OK, you've got it. Don't worry about it, just do what you know what you can do.'

"And off the court, we're just goofballs."

Griner knows that with her size and great talent, she'll continue to be viewed as Darth Vader by a lot of opposing fans. They won't think of her as the happy-go-lucky 6-8 kid whizzing by on a longboard past her amused fellow students.

But that's OK, too. She doesn't mind being the one who drives the enemy nuts with her skills.

"We go to Tennessee this year, and I can't wait," Griner said of a Nov. 27 game in Knoxville. "They have so many fans, and people boo you. It's fun. I love those games.

"They show you where you are at, and what you need to work on. There are higher expectations for me and our team this year. We're not that young. We're an older team now, and we should know what we need to do."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.