April 12, 2022 

What we know about Brittney Griner’s Mercury roster status

And how Phoenix addressed it on draft night

Draft night is usually an extremely exciting time for all teams in the WNBA, a day to celebrate new players joining the roster as training camp draws ever so nearer. But for the Phoenix Mercury, the unresolved situation with Brittney Griner, who is still being detained in Russia over alleged drug possession, is leaving a dense, dark pall hanging over the organization — especially with training camp set to start on Sunday and no end seemingly in sight to Griner’s ordeal.

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“It’s something that’s always on our minds,” Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said after Monday’s draft. “She’s always there for us, and we want to make sure that we continue to focus on everything that we can do to get her home quickly and safely. And that’s all we can do, at this point.”

At the start of the ESPN Draft television show, Holly Rowe reported that Griner’s full salary will get paid for the 2022 season and she will not be suspended. But Rowe also said the Mercury and the WNBA are “in discussions” on the basketball side to try and figure out what Rowe called “roster relief” considering the situation. A league source confirmed Rowe’s reporting to The Next on both the payment and the discussions for cap relief.

The non-suspension is key on two fronts, as any players who have their contracts suspended don’t get the payment from them and can’t play. But there is a precedent in the WNBA of players getting paid while not counting against the cap sheet, which happened back in 2019 with Breanna Stewart.

Stewart tore her Achilles during EuroLeague play right before the WNBA season and missed all of 2019 for the then-defending champion Storm. While Seattle had to suspend her contract to free up a roster spot, the WNBA made her a paid ambassador for the league and paid her “in excess of her roughly $65,000 base salary,” as the Associated Press reported at the time.

The ambassador route could be an option to try and resolve the situation for the Mercury and Griner. But in Stewart’s situation, it was known she wouldn’t play at all that year. For Griner, new head coach Vanessa Nygaard indicated that the Mercury don’t want to close the door on her season yet — but also find some way to help the team out with their roster situation.

“We are hopeful to have BG, of course. Obviously, we won’t have her for a little bit at all,” Nygaard said. “And we’re hoping that the WNBA finds a way to support us. WNBA rosters aren’t big to start with. We carry 11, Kia Nurse is currently still injured. That puts up at 10. Without BG, that puts us at nine.

“So, we’re hoping to get some support and find some ways where we’re still supporting BG and also supporting the rest of our players by having a full roster to take on the court.”

But no matter what the resolution is — and whether we see Griner back in the United States at all during this WNBA season, let alone back on the court — it’s clear that this unprecedented situation is making it hard to know what to expect.

“We just don’t know,” Pitman said. “We just don’t know what our situation is going to be, but we will be prepared for any possible outcome.”

At last indication, Griner will stay in detention until “at least May 19,” per Russian state news agency TASS. Her detention reportedly began on Feb. 17, just after WNBA free agency’s big period ended, and news of her detention didn’t break until March 5. It’s mostly been a quiet period for the WNBA, and the course of action has, by all indications, been to keep quiet and try not to turn Griner into a political matter.

But as her detention has extended to nearly two full months, and with the WNBA season nearing, the league and its players have started to try and vocalize support for Griner in other ways. On Monday, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that a “league-wide philanthropic initiative” will take place and focus on the Heart and Sole Shoe Drive organization Griner founded in 2016.

“This is an unimaginable situation for BG to be in,” Engelbert said. “She continues to have our full support. She’s just been such a great person in the league that I can’t be any more real about the situation she’s in. Certainly, we’re trying everything we can, every angle, working through with her legal representation, her agent, elected leaders, the administration, just everybody in our ecosystem to try to find ways to get her home safely and as quickly as we can.”

Engelbert said the Merucry are the ones leading the initiative, but Nygaard said it was “really amazing” that the league used its biggest preseason platform to vocalize support for Griner.

“Anyone who is feeling that energy, [of] wanting to get out to support her, this is a great way to do it,” Nygaard said. “And it’s so wonderful to hear all of the players jumping right in to have her back. We can’t think anything about the WNBA this year without thinking of BG — we have to keep that in the front of our head.”

Without Griner, adding post depth

While everyone’s hearts will remain with Griner during her ordeal, the Mercury have had to begin preparing to play a season without her, even though there was only so much they could do on their roster.

They had traded away this year’s first round pick to acquire Nurse and Megan Walker during 2021’s offseason. They then sent their second round pick to Indiana (along with both their first and second round picks in 2023) this offseason to unload Bria Hartley’s contract, which cleared up enough cap space for the Mercury to add both Diamond DeShields and Tina Charles.

All that was left for Phoenix was two third round picks in 2022: their own and Atlanta’s, which they acquired last season from the Dream for Yvonne Turner — who didn’t even make Atlanta’s roster.

With Atlanta’s pick at No. 26 overall in the third round, the Mercury selected Maya Dodson, a post player out of Notre Dame. Dodson transferred to South Bend after playing at Stanford for three seasons and opting out of the Cardinal’s national championship-winning 2020-21.

“Maya Dodson was someone we were really excited about to have available at 26,” Pitman said. “We didn’t think that she would drop to us, so we’re very happy that we ended up being able to select her.”

In her one season at Notre Dame, Dodson averaged 12.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, getting an enhanced role from what she received during her time at Stanford. She’s dealt with multiple injuries to her left foot, which kept her out of 10 games in 2018-19 and the first 24 games of 2020-21. But she’s been seen as a high-potential player going all the way back to high school, when she was a McDonald’s All-American, five-star recruit who even was the captain of Team USA’s 2016 U17 team.

“She’s a very athletic big that really fits the mold of what we’re trying to do,” Pitman said. “I think that she’s got a real desire to play. She’s a great defender, rebounder. She just fits in the skillset that we’re looking for from that position as a bench player.”

Dodson, curiously, was applying for a waiver to remain in college for an additional season, but the NCAA denied her waiver. Now, after not getting to stay in college, she’ll end up playing professionally in Phoenix, alongside two former Irish (Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner) and for a head coach who went to her original school. Nygaard laughed when asked if there would be a fight over claiming Dodson’s allegiances.

“I’m gonna coach players-first, so I’ll give her to Sky,” Nygaard said. “But at the same time, I do believe she graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree and is a graduate student at Notre Dame. So, I mean, best of both worlds. I can’t say I wasn’t excited to have somebody who had been a Stanford Cardinal.”

Six picks later, at No. 32 overall, Phoenix took Macee Williams, a center out of IUPUI. While she was a center in college, the 6’2 Williams is a bit undersized for the position in the professional ranks and will likely slide to power forward.  

But she was dominant in college, a four-time Player of the Year in the Horizon League who helped the Jaguars to two Horizon League titles. In her lone NCAA tournament game, Williams was a force and nearly helped IUPUI pull off an upset of Oklahoma on the Sooners’ home floor. Williams had 17 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block.

While third round picks don’t typically have the greatest chance at making a roster, Phoenix’s fluid situation means any post player coming into training camp has a chance to earn a WNBA roster spot.

“I think our camp is going to be pretty interesting,” Nygaard said. “Some camps, the rosters are pretty set, spaces are filled. And there is some opportunity in our camp. There’ll be some real competition, which I think is going to be great — it’s going to elevate our camp.”

Phoenix already was going to enter training camp with two roster spots available for players to earn, which their cap situation left them with enough space to add two more players at the higher veteran’s minimum deals — and just barely. But Pitman has indicated to The Next these spots don’t have to go to veterans, either.

The Mercury have added four players on training camp deals who figured to be in the mix for those spots. Guards Kiana Williams and Jennie Simms, forward Leaonna Odom and forward/center Kristine Anigwe were signed throughout late February and March.

Between their two draft picks and those four signees, it was assumed the Mercury would be interested in adding one post player to their roster, and Anigwe’s previous WNBA experience — (she’s played in 54 games for three different teams in three years) and pedigree (she was a first round pick in 2019) would make her the frontrunner for the backup post player roster spot entering camp.

But there surely will be competition — and with the rest of this week to go, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Phoenix look to add another player to their training camp roster, either, as they have at least one roster spot left to use for training camp trialists.

But no player they bring in will be able to fill the void — both on the court and in terms of spirit, attitude and energy — that’s left in the Phoenix organization right now.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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