When she steps into the gym, time seems to stop. Coaches, spectators and players do double-takes, stopping what they are doing and looking in her direction. It is obvious, but those not familiar with Brittney Griner still lean over to ask, "Is that her? The one who can dunk?"
A year ago, that would have been an adequate description of the 6-foot-8 Houstonian, but that's not good enough anymore. Talk to coaches who coached against her a year or more ago, and you'll hear their confidence in being able to "stop" her -- by that, they mean not let her score at will. "We just push her around get her away from the basket she doesn't like contact," they say.
Those same coaches fail to acknowledge that although they might have defended Griner well, she probably still blocked eight shots and altered at least a dozen more. Her defense is singularly impressive, but what it allows a team to do collectively is the truly amazing dynamic.
A team defense can be designed around Griner, and like a great offensive player, she makes every player on her team better. Her teammates can focus on tormenting the ball handler and play all out on the ball without worrying about giving up an easy layup. Easy shots simply do not exist with Griner on the floor. Whether she is close enough to the opposition to block the shot, her presence is on the minds of the shooters.
Off the ball, defenders can overplay passing lanes or face-guard the opposition's top scorer without worrying about giving up a back-door layup. They know they have a shot-blocking force behind them. It's easy for teammates to have faith in Griner; she always is in the right position on the floor and her hands always are up, shrinking passing lanes and reminding everyone she's there.
Simply put, Griner injects confidence in her teammates at the defensive end of the floor unlike anyone before. It is one of the main reasons that, in its release of top 2009 prospects, ESPN HoopGurlz elevated her to the top spot.
In recent years, few talented players have impressed with incredible athleticism that translated well at the defensive end. Maya Moore has jumped into the air and caught, rather than swatted, the opposition's shot. Sylvia Fowles has swatted shots from behind, at rim level, after getting beat by a step. But Griner is different.
The aforementioned feats were isolated plays. Griner's impact, on the other hand, is constant. She roams the paint, intimidating like a guard dog at the junk yard -- but picture that dog without a fence or chain. She can be in the paint, and then suddenly, she's in the air blocking a 3-point attempt. Her reign of terror is seemingly without boundaries defensively. She drops low enough in the paint to see the action in front of her when she's in weakside help position and she moves her feet over to stop dribble penetration, and when she blocks a shot, it isn't a wild, out-of-control swat at the ball.
Some of the most prolific shot-blockers on the men's side of the game -- Marcus Camby, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell and Ben Wallace -- have had lasting effects on the game. But none of them have been as dominating in their game as Griner is in the female game. The fact is, she would be a shot-blocking factor against male opponents -- maybe not as dominant, given the size of the players, but still a factor.
Offensively, Griner is just scratching the surface. In drill work at the Nike Regional Skills Academy in Houston, she picked up on the interior footwork as quickly as anyone. You could see the wheels spinning; those footwork drills were easy for her -- much easier than the fadeaway jumpers for which she historically has settled during games.
Griner is just learning how to play around the basket. During drill work in Houston, she was forced to take her time, step to the basket on her pivots and stay strong in her base before elevating. The result was that she was finishing at the rim in both the half court and in transition. She is capable of getting there from blocks with a traditional post move. Although she's not as strong as some of the other elite posts in the class, she is anything but weak. With every repetition, she scratches a little deeper on her way to the molten hot core that is her full potential.
Griner hits her turnaround jumper from the right block consistently, but it is not the strong, powerful move that should be her best. That would be the highest-percentage shot in basketball: a virtually uncontested layup over the front of the rim. The turnaround is a good shot to have in her arsenal and will allow her to score even when double- and triple-teamed. She can face up and attack from the mid-post or high-post off the dribble, and she knows she can extend her arms and keep the ball away from the defense even if it has good position. Griner also has a solid mechanics in her shooting form. She has been pretty successful when she has been allowed to roam the court because of her athleticism. Hitting her on the wing in transition almost always leads to an easy bucket.
The most intriguing thing about Griner is that she's nothing like the tall players before her, one because she's taller than most of them. Unfortunately, most players who reach 6-5 experience such tremendous growth spurts that their coordination is lacking. We all have seen that tall post player who spends hours in the weight room but can't put on significant muscle; it's just not in his or her genes. The Baylor commit can glide up and down the court in transition, and her coordination is not limited to running. Griner can change directions quickly with and without the ball. She has good leaping ability and great body control while she's in the air. She has touch on her finishes. You can point to players who have a few of these attributes, but none who have all of them -- not in a 6-foot-8 frame.
Griner needs to continue to learn how to use leverage along with her strength. If she consistently stays in a strong athletic position, she will find there aren't too many defenders who can really push her around and she can finish when and where she wants, a liberty no other player has.
No disrespect to the top players in previous classes or even to this year's crop of college All-Americans, but Griner can be better, a lot better, than all of them. Candace Parker is a phenomenal athlete and one of the most advanced offensive players the game has ever been blessed with, but Griner could be better. Although Parker is the face of the game right now, Griner is the next full evolution of the game. By the time Griner is done with college, she will have rewritten the expectations of the top female player.
Griner could be the best to ever play the game. Even if she doesn't get any better, she still will be one of the biggest impact players when she reaches Baylor. The things she does effortlessly now will be only a fraction of her game when she's done developing as a player. Griner listens too well, moves too smoothly and has too much potential not to be the best. Her development might be the single biggest piece in the evolution of the women's game, taking the novelty away from dunking and elevating the game itself. She didn't sign up for this kind of responsibility, but the next evolution in women's basketball is in very good --and very large -- hands.
Chris Hansen covers girls' high school basketball nationally for ESPN.com and leads the panel that ranks and evaluates players for the network. He can be reached at email@example.com.
For more in-depth coverage of women's college basketball prospects and girls' basketball, visit HoopGurlz.com