February 26, 2009

Griner named nation's no. 1 player

PLAYER RANKINGS: Top 50 in 2009 | Top 25 in 2010 | 10 to Watch in 2011

A video clip showcasing the dunks of Nimitz (Texas) High's 6-foot-8 basketball star Brittney Griner has drawn more than 2 million hits on the Internet.

But none of the viewers was bigger literally or figuratively than 7-1 Phoenix Suns center Shaquille O'Neal. "The Diesel" agreed to meet Griner last year while in Houston to face the Rockets, and it resulted in a new experience for her.

"I really felt small for the first time," Griner said.

The 18-year-old with an 86-inch wingspan and size-17 shoes has towered over her peers since kindergarten. To put her height in perspective, only one WNBA player, 7-2 Los Angeles Sparks center Margo Dydek, is taller.

But the reasons for her basketball success extend beyond her mammoth frame. Griner possesses great agility, athleticism and speed. She finished first during the team's mile run with a time of 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

The senior's size and skills account for her jaw-dropping statistics. She has averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 8.4 blocks, 2.6 assists, and 2.6 steals for the No. 24 team in the RivalsHigh Top 25, Houston school. During those 32 games, she has 17 triple-doubles and has shot 70 percent from the floor. Her numbers reflect a once-in-a-generation talent, and make her the RivalsHigh.com no. 1 player in the class of 2009.

"She will change the face of women's basketball." Nimitz coach Debbie Jackson said. "There really is not a high school player that has played like Brittney Griner has. There's no doubt in my mind that she will be one of the top notch collegiate players, and it won't take long for her to do that."

She demonstrated those transcendent abilities during Nimitz's season-opening game against Hastings High. Griner set a national record with 25 blocks. It was a woman-among-girls performance with her frequent rejections helping limit Hastings to 18 points.

"She's just tenacious on defense," Jackson said. "She takes a lot of pride in it."

Defense and rebounding serve as Griner's forte, but her dunking has become an Internet sensation. Before the Sparks' Lisa Leslie recorded the first dunk during WNBA play in 2002, women had dunked only seven times during college and professional action between 1984 and 2002. Griner, however, averages about two a game.

Her first in-game dunk occurred two years ago against Northbrook High. Nimitz's Samone Ballard stole the ball and lobbed a pass to Griner, whose explosive first step allowed her to beat everyone down the court. She capped the fast break with a slam, sending the crowd and team into an absolute frenzy. Ballard celebrated by jumping on Griner's back.

"I actually took a timeout just to get everybody settled down," Jackson said.

Griner owns an extensive dunking repertoire. She can dunk running or standing and with one hand or two. Those jams have not only become a YouTube staple but also were featured on SportsCenter's top 10 plays. She is working on nailing both a 360 dunk and one where she jumps over a teammate. For her, dunking has become a mundane practice ritual.

"It's just like a person taking a free throw shot," said her father, Raymond. "I see it every day."

She will take her dunking skills to Baylor next season. Griner selected that school over Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Connecticut, Rutgers and LSU because of its close proximity to home, strong program and passionate coach, Kim Mulkey.

Wow. Shaq watched me on YouTube.
Brittney Griner.

"She's really intense when it comes to basketball," Griner said. "But she'll love you to death, which I like."

Griner will continue to round out her game at Baylor. Her current focus involves improving her shooting range, ball-handling and hook shot. Most important, Griner aims to improve her free throw shooting, which stands at 51 percent.

Mulkey, though, will mold a player with limitless potential. Griner only has played organized basketball since the ninth grade. But the 6-3 freshman took quickly to the game, earning all-district honors during that season.

"She's like a sponge that just keeps absorbing," Jackson said.

Griner did not play team basketball until high school so she could concentrate on her studies and other sports like soccer and volleyball. Jackson found Griner after a fall volleyball practice during her freshman year and suggested she hoop it up when the volleyball season concluded. But Griner did not need much encouragement. Several of her friends joined the basketball team, and she enjoyed the game.

Growing up she had played recreationally. Raymond had taught her some fundamentals, including a few moves and shooting mechanics. Father and daughter also competed in one-on-one games, but she became a little too much to handle around her sophomore year.

"She blocked most of my shots," Raymond said.

Raymond, a former Marine and a retired deputy sheriff, is 6-2, and Brittney's mother, Sandra, a cosmetologist at Lone Star College, is 5-8. Griner has several male and female cousins who also stand well above 6 feet.

Check out the YouTube collection of Griner dunks
A recent doctor's visit confirmed that her height was not caused by a pituitary gland condition. According to a physician's estimate, Griner likely will continue growing and could end up 6-9 or 6-10 something she would welcome.

Lacking self-consciousness and displaying a comfort with her size, Griner calls her height an asset. She said she never considered herself an outcast because of her stature or remembers being the source of derision. If anything, she calls herself out in a self-deprecating manner.

"I'll be the first one to make a joke about me being taller," Griner said. "I don't let it get to me or anything. I love being tall."

A B-student, who frequently answered a reporter's questions with a "yes, sir," she remains grounded and a consummate teammate despite the burgeoning national attention.

"She's a real humble kid," Raymond said.

She described her nervousness upon meeting O'Neal during their 20-minute visit at the Toyota Center, which a journalist arranged. He chided her dunking ability and told her he had seen some of her footage on YouTube, and that floored Griner.

"[It's] kind of backwards," Griner said. "Wow. Shaq watched me on YouTube."

O'Neal advised her to prioritize family life, work out vigorously and remain healthy. Along with those objectives, Griner would like to play basketball in the Olympics and overseas.

She also wants to become a SWAT unit officer. Inherited from her father, the affinity for law enforcement is something she shares with O'Neal, who has said he will become a sheriff or chief of police upon retiring from the NBA.

Griner's career arc on the basketball court may mirror the dominant big man's as well.


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