December 9, 2022 

How Brittney Griner’s return impacts the Phoenix Mercury

Should she want to resume her basketball career, Griner faces free agency

It was a long-awaited and joyous day Thursday as Phoenix Mercury star center Brittney Griner was freed from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The Mercury issued a statement thanking several people, including U.S. President Joe Biden and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

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Mercury players Kia Nurse, Shey Peddy, Sophie Cunningham, Brianna Turner, Reshanda Gray, Megan Gustafson and Kaela Davis tweeted out their elation for the return of their teammate.

On Friday, Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard spoke to CNN about the return of the star center.

“We are all so happy,” Nygaard said. “The entire WNBA community, our fans, our supporters and everyone who’s been involved. It is just a day of absolute joy yesterday. And waking up tomorrow and knowing that BG’s not in a Russian prison — we’re so happy. And seeing the images of her come out and knowing that she is doing well — we are ecstatic.”

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Griner is a free agent

All that matters right now is that Brittney Griner is safe and with her family. Should she want to resume her basketball career in the WNBA, Griner could sign with a team once free agency begins.

If the Mercury are able to bring her back, it would be a huge addition. She is one of the top players in the WNBA. In 2021, Griner averaged 20.5 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 57.5% from the field.

With Griner in 2021, the Mercury ranked second in the league in offensive rating and No. 7 in the league in defensive rating. Without her, they slid to No. 8 in both categories in 2022. In 2021, Phoenix was second in blocks per game. In 2022, the team was just No. 8 in the category.

Re-signing Griner would obviously take up a good amount of the Mercury’s $881,650 in cap space. If Griner signs with Phoenix, she would be eligible for the $234,936 supermax contract. This is because she would be returning to her current team having five years or more of service.

Phoenix is paying close to the supermax contract for all-star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith ($234,350), $150,000 for forward Brianna Turner and $154,500 for guard Diamond DeShields. If unrestricted free agent Diana Taurasi does indeed return for year No. 19, she would likely expect something in the vicinity of the supermax unless she is willing to take a pay cut.

If Griner signs a supermax contract and Taurasi signs for $230,000, the team would be at just over one million dollars in salaries for the season. This would probably give the team room to bring back restricted free agent guard Sophie Cunningham, who had a career year last season with 12.6 points per game while shooting 40% from 3-point range, or unrestricted free agent guard Kia Nurse. Nurse had a solid season in 2021 averaging 9.5 points per game before tearing her ACL in the 2021 playoffs.

Griner has been through a lot and will have to feel physically and mentally up to play again. Additionally, Diggins-Smith will miss most, if not all, of the season after announcing she is pregnant with her second child in October.

Nevertheless, the expectations for the 2023 Mercury go up exponentially if Griner returns and teams up with Taurasi, DeShields, Turner and Cunningham. A title may not be on the horizon but a deep playoff run is more likely with Griner on the floor.

The basketball side of Brittney Griner’s situation will eventually play out, but for now, it is all about making sure she is ok after such a long time in Russian captivity.

“Obviously she’ll be evaluated medically,” said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert in a Zoom press conference Thursday. “… We’re obviously going to respect the privacy of this very critical time in her coming back home and obviously I’d love to call her, I’d love to see her. We’re going to give her the appropriate space and time for that. And then follow, again, what Brittney and her family want to do about re-engaging with the WNBA and our players.”

Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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