Strong rim protector. Promising but inconsistent jump shot. Rudimentary post game. Robotic movements. Finishes soft at the rim. Doesn’t always secure rebounds with two hands. Trouble catching/securing the ball. Foul prone.
Those are all descriptors of Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner’s game, but they may as well have come from the scouting report on Phoenix Suns center Alex Len. Both centers arrived in Phoenix during the summer of 2013 with loads of promise but to this point have performed below expectations. Now in 2016, neither appears substantially closer to cracking that nut called “potential.”
But after Griner and her teammates on the U.S. women’s national basketball team defeated Spain to win the Olympic gold medal in Rio, she may have discovered a way forward that will be of benefit to both players in their careers.
For those unfamiliar with the 6’9 Griner, she came to Phoenix as a highly decorated four-year college player. Along with winning the NCAA title in 2012 when she led her Baylor team to a 40-0 record, she averaged over 23 points in her final three seasons, shot over 60 percent from the field in her final two seasons, and set the NCAA division I record for career blocks (748). By the way, that last stat is for either men’s or women’s basketball.
Couple all that with the fact that she could dunk in game with ease, and the hype was definitely real, leading the Mercury to select her with the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. Since then, she has developed into the WNBA’s most feared defender since the late 7’2 Margo Dydek patrolled the court, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and 2015 and setting WNBA records for most blocks in a single season (129), most blocks per game in a single season (4.0), and most blocks in a single game (11). With ten games left to play in her fourth season as a pro, she already ranks 11th in WNBA history for career blocks.
The problems begin when she’s not blocking shots. Her career averages of 14.3 points and 56 percent field goal shooting are disappointing since she is always the tallest player on the floor and possesses a 7’4 wingspan on top of it. Even more disheartening for a player her size is that she is not an exceptional rebounder, having never averaged more than 8.1 in her career and pulling down a career-worst 6.1 in 2016.
Griner, for as physical as she can be, tends to shy away from contact, preferring fadeaway jumpers over the defense and tapping rebounds out to teammates. When she does attack the basket, it’s almost never for a dunk or hook shot that no defender would have a prayer of stopping. Instead, she needlessly complicates her already limited offensive repertoire with spastic, swooping shots through the paint that are made all the more awkward due to a high center of gravity that she struggles to compensate for. And that’s when she hasn’t lost the ball to the defense due to her bad hands. But all of that only matters when she can stay on the court, since her penchant for doing everything from reaching over opponents’ backs for rebounds to setting moving screens keeps her in perpetual foul trouble.
As Griner began exhibition play with the U.S. national team in preparation for the Olympics, she looked destined for a deep bench role behind steady bigs Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles. During one of the early exhibition games, commentator and Hall of Fame WNBA center Lisa Leslie bemoaned Griner’s inability to establish herself on the team while 2016 WNBA MVP frontrunner Candace Parker sat at home after inexplicably being left off the roster.
But then Olympic group play began, and Griner found herself in the starting lineup for the first time alongside leaders Sue Bird, Maya Moore, and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi. With those three around her, Griner was suddenly being asked to do nothing more than be herself.
It worked for her. She responded with 14 points, seven rebounds, and a plus/minus of +34 in just 16 minutes as she helped Team USA throttle Senegal 121-56 in the opening game in Rio. Her best game came in the final game of group play, when she dominated China with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 23 minutes.
In the eight games she played, Griner did not try to reinvent herself. She stuck to her role of being a game changer in the middle for Team USA, leading the team with averages of 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Meanwhile, her teammates would look to feed her early in games on offense, but beyond that, her scoring came either via good interior passing or cleaning up the glass. Even without being an offensive focal point, she managed to average 9.8 points (third on the team) on 69.2-percent shooting.
That is not to say Griner worked out every kink in her game during these Olympics. She still turned her head at times on defense, still found herself susceptible to being tipped over on offensive moves. And she still picked up fouls like she were E.T. picking up Reese’s Pieces. Despite all that, she looked as comfortable on the court as she has in a while, and that can largely be attributed to not having to step outside her comfort zone on a historically great team.
The same lessons can be applied to Len. Last season, Len was tasked with doing more for the Suns than he had ever been before, and while many of his individual stats increased, it was largely a function of usage. More often than not, Len was operating in roles well beyond his comfort zone and looked to be in over his head. With the return to health of primary scorers Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, Len should be able to return to his more comfortable role as rim protector and rebounder who occasionally finishes around the rim.
Does Len have the talent to take on a larger role for the team? Of course. So does Griner for her teams. Problems arise, though, when players are placed in roles they are not ready for. Len was given increased responsibility last season and floundered more often than he rose to the occasion. That should not preclude the young center from receiving the opportunity to prove himself capable in the future, but for a player who already battles confidence issues, a return to a more regimented role with fewer expectations would help.
Both Griner and Len have the potential to be so much more for their teams, but when things aren’t working, sometimes it’s best to remember what was working, return to that, and build out from there.