Brittney Griner is back.
Back in her country. Back in her home. And back in the WNBA, where the three-time All-WNBA first-teamer and her Phoenix Mercury teammates will take the court Friday, May 19, as part of a WNBA opening night quadruple-header.
It has been barely five months since Griner was released from a Russian penal colony, where she was serving a nine-year sentence after pleading guilty to bringing hashish oil into the country. Griner was arrested last February, a week before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The Joe Biden administration said she had been “wrongfully detained,” and Griner wrote a letter to President Biden saying she was “terrified I might be here forever.” In her first post since she was released in December in a prisoner exchange, she wrote on Instagram that she planned to return to the WNBA.
Now, with the WNBA season about to begin, I’ve been asked to project what Griner’s game and production might look like this year.
To put it mildly, this is a challenging undertaking on many levels. In all honesty, it’s harder than usual for me to separate my analysis from my personal feelings of pulling for her as a person after everything she went through. And the analysis itself is so multilayered that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m nice with the numbers and everything. I can typically explore player history and current circumstances to give a reasonable projection for what their statistics might look like in any given season. Even if they are coming off injury, I can look at other players who have returned from similar injury and use that to shape my predictions.
But this? It’s unprecedented in American professional sports history. So, I’m not going to necessarily attempt the type of specific, line-by-line statistical projections I typically do. Instead, let’s just look together at Griner’s history from a quantitative standpoint, then piece together what we can from various anecdotes and interviews to try to shape the numbers into reasonable estimates.
Where to begin
Start with her typical level before 2022. During the five seasons from 2017 to 2021, Griner’s stats were very consistent, and they were locked at that level in 2021. Here are her averages for the entire five-year span and then for 2021 alone:
Griner 2017-21: 20.6 PPG (55.8 FG%, 81.4 FT%), 7.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.5 SPG, 2.2 BPG, 0.0 3PG in 32.4 MPG
Griner 2021: 20.5 PPG (57.5 FG%, 84.6 FT%), 9.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.9 BPG, 0.1 3PG in 32.8 MPG
Griner was 30 years old during the 2021 season, and the upcoming campaign will be her age 32 season. Longtime teammate Diana Taurasi gave an interview about how Griner’s game looked as of the end of April. Taurasi referenced the rust on Griner’s game, but also indicated that Griner was visibly improving with time.
“Yeah, I think she’s progressed,” she said. “I mean, when you don’t do anything for 10 months, yeah, it’s a long strain on your body — mentally, physically. But every week you just see her getting a little bit better.”
That same week, Griner gave a similar outlook about her game.
“I always believe in my ability. Being realistic, am I exactly where I want to be? No. But I’m on the right track. The first two weeks, first month [of basketball training]… it was hard. At first, there was a point where it was like, ‘Wow, do I really want to do this this fast right now?’ But it was so worth it.”
The following Sunday, Griner returned to practice with the Mercury. It was her first official basketball work with the team in 560 days, since she led Phoenix in the WNBA Finals on Oct. 17, 2021. Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard stated that the practice was the culmination of a 100-day plan to prepare Griner for her first team practice session.
Griner also gave another update as to the status of her game:
“Am I where I want to be? No, because last time I was with my team I was against Chicago in the Finals, and as much as I want to be ‘Finals BG’ right now, it’s not the case,” she said. “So, just kind of giving myself some grace and my teammates just picking me up. But I feel like I’m at a good spot to start a training camp though for sure. I mean I didn’t fall out, they didn’t have to get a stretcher or oxygen or anything, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.”
So, where does this leave us in projecting what to expect from Griner?
It is still unclear, but she is working herself into the type of shape she needs to be in for the season. Griner has been a full participant throughout preseason training camp. It isn’t clear how much she may or may not play in the preseason (she didn’t play in the opener).
But, when it comes to projecting veteran players, I’m big on per-minute production remaining fairly consistent. As Griner refines her skills, it’s likely her per-minute production may be similar to what we’ve seen in her career. The question, then, becomes how much she might be able to play.
As she referenced, as of the end of April she was finding victory in not needing “a stretcher or oxygen” to get through practice. It’s not clear whether she will be able to play her typical 32-plus minutes to start the season, or even at any point throughout the campaign. It also isn’t clear whether Griner will play every game, or whether she might be on any type of load management as the season begins.
To complete our numerical exercise, I’ll estimate her playing 27 MPG, in 80% of the games, at a similar per-minute rate as from the five seasons from 2017 to 2021. That would yield a rough production estimate of:
Griner in 2023: 17.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.4 SPG, 1.8 BPG, 0.0 3PG
This would translate to 30.2 fantasy points/game (numbers are rounded). Based on last season’s WNBA statistics, 30.2 FP/G would have tied with Natasha Howard for 14th-best fantasy scoring average in the league.
If she held that average for 80% of the 36 games the WNBA played last season, it would have been good for 22nd in the league in total fantasy points, slotted between Emma Meesseman and Courtney Vandersloot.
These are very rough estimates, and obviously Griner still has the upside to be the fantasy hoops first-round pick that she was before 2022. But hopefully this gives you some things to consider as you prepare for your fantasy women’s basketball drafts.
For me personally, I like taking a chance on upside, and I absolutely will be pulling for Griner this season for reasons that have nothing to do with fantasy hoops. But that means I’ll likely be drafting her in the second round of a lot of leagues… and doing so with a smile.