Phoenix superstar wins, hands down
Tulsa guard looks serious about stardom
If the measure of success is victory, no second-year player in the WNBA has had a better season than Phoenix's Brittney Griner.
After an underwhelming rookie season marked by injury and uncertainty -- both in her game and with the Phoenix franchise -- everything has come together for the 6-foot-8 superstar.
A year ago, Griner was perhaps the most-hyped rookie in WNBA history, the spotlight white-hot after her record-breaking college career at Baylor. She upped the ante in her first game when she dunked on national television.
But her debut season didn't live up to its auspicious start. Griner struggled to get her bearings as the Mercury struggled to figure out how best to feature her in their star-studded lineup. She was in demand off the court and manhandled on it, learning a quick, hard lesson about the physicality of pro ball. Midway through the season, a left ankle injury sidelined her (for the first time in her career) for seven games. While she was still trying to find her balance as a pro, the Mercury fired their coach and brought in someone new to finish the season.
Phoenix fell in the Western Conference finals and Griner headed to China for her first overseas experience. It was a true test, from her homesickness to the food, from her work habits to language barriers and to enormously high expectations. But she came back stronger, healthier and a better basketball player.
This season opened with another new coach but a clearer idea of what was expected. Griner has delivered. She is one of the best players on the best team in the league, averaging 15.7 points and 7.8 rebounds, and she leads the WNBA with 112 blocks, 60 more than the next best. (In 2013, she averaged 12.6 PPG and 6.3 RPG, with 81 blocks.)
That's the kind of breakout that can lead a team to a title.
Let's be frank: There was a school of thought that Skylar Diggins' celebrity and "brand" could blossom even without her being especially successful in the WNBA. So there was speculation that Diggins might be more interested in all the potential opportunities she had away from the court.
However, it was obvious just in one preseason game that Diggins was ready for a terrific "sophomore" season in the WNBA. And she has maintained that to such a degree, I think she has had an even bigger improvement in her second year in the league than also-impressive Phoenix center Brittney Griner.
The Tulsa guard is averaging 20.4 points, almost 12 points better than her rookie average. She has increased her assist average to 5.0 from 3.8, and she's also averaging 9 more minutes per game.
If the West team had won the WNBA All-Star Game in July, Diggins -- who had 27 points and seven assists -- likely would have taken MVP honors. Instead, that went to Atlanta rookie Shoni Schimmel, whose East team prevailed. But that game was a microcosm of the player Diggins has been all season for the Shock.
Admittedly, it has been another tough season for Tulsa, which is 11-19. But Diggins has been consistently very good. Even when she's not the leading scorer -- such as Tuesday, when Tulsa upended the Sparks in Los Angeles led by Odyssey Sims' 30 points -- Diggins is still putting her stamp on games. She has worked well in the backcourt with the rookie Sims, helping tutor her while still being so young herself. And the Shock should have a lot to look forward to as those two continue to develop.
Diggins needs to become more efficient as a shooter, which should happen with more experience. She has proved that she aspires to be a real star in this league.