May 13, 2023 

Brittney Griner shows signs of old self, rust in first WNBA game since 2021

'To see her back is an absolute miracle'

PHOENIX — Brittney Griner‘s first game back at the Footprint Center since the 2021 WNBA Finals was not the environment it will be on May 21, when the Phoenix Mercury play their first-regular season home game of 2023. But it was still a special night.

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Despite light attendance for the team’s 90-71 preseason loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday, the crowd gave a raucous ovation when Griner, who missed last season while being wrongfully detained in Russia, was introduced as one of Phoenix’s starters.

The seven-time All-Star discussed what it was like being introduced as a starter again in front of the home fans.

“It was really good,” Griner said. “Just everything. Just the fans, their appreciation. Hearing them cheer when my name was called like that, I really felt it. I felt it the whole time I was gone. I could feel the X-Factor, and so it just felt really good to be back and just kind of get it behind me now a little bit and focus more on the game.”

Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard also discussed Griner’s pregame introduction:

Nikki Blue, my assistant, we looked at each other and we just had chills. We were here last year for all of it. Many of you were here, all of last year. Just to see her back is an absolute miracle. It was amazing.”

On the court, Griner looked good at times and understandably shaky at others. She finished 2-for-5 from the field with 10 points, three rebounds and one block in about 17 minutes.

Her best sequences were a massive block on Sparks forward Crystal Bradford late in the second quarter and a smooth move early in the third quarter to knock down a jump shot. She also did good job drawing contact and getting to the foul line, as she made 6-for-8 free throws.

On the other hand, Griner had one moment on offense where she seemed confused about what she was supposed to be doing. She also had a sequence early on where she missed back-to-back putback attempts. But the negative aspects of Griner’s night were mostly on defense, where she was a bit sluggish at times.

“Honestly, I didn’t guard anybody today,” Griner said. “First game back, preseason game; the first game in L.A. will be totally different. We’ll be running totally different things. Coach keeps telling me to give myself grace, but that’s hard. I was happy with some of the shots that I took. The defense, I have to be better.”

Nygaard also spoke on Griner’s play in the preseason game.

“I think she did well,” Nygaard said. “This is a person who’s been off for more than a year here. And, she’s been battling and working really, really hard. But I thought she did some really good stuff. … She was super engaged and I know it was just a really joyful day for her and her family.”

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Sophie Cunningham injured

The joy around Griner’s return was halted when, late in the third quarter, Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham went down with a left knee injury. She could barely put pressure on her left leg as she was helped off the floor.

Cunningham was a major contributor to the Phoenix squad last season, averaging a career-high 12.6 points per game while shooting 40.0% from 3-point range. Losing her for a significant amount of time would be a major blow to the team’s hopes this season.

“She’s in good spirits,” Nygaard said postgame. “Further evaluation will be needed, but we’re optimistic.”

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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