BY BOB BAUM, AP SPORTS WRITER
PHOENIX (AP) — After a tough first season in the WNBA, Brittney Griner is blossoming into the player everyone thought she would be, all the while embracing her status as a role model for gay youth.
“We need more people in the LGBT community to step up and be role models,” she said. “I definitely take that on.”
Last season, after a record-setting career at Baylor, Griner came out and wrote a candid memoir, “In My Skin,” that was critical of her college coach, Kim Mulkey. And she wasn’t dominating games the way people had projected.
“The book wasn’t a distraction, really,” Griner said. “Just all the media from last year, being a rookie, was crazy.”
After playing in China during the WNBA offseason, Griner returned to the Phoenix Mercury stronger and more confident. As teammate Diana Taurasi said, “She’s a totally different player.”
“She’s gained her confidence back, her aggression,” Taurasi said, “her confidence on what she wants to do on the court, and obviously defensively she’s a huge force.”
Griner, marvelously fluid at 6-foot-8, had her second dunk of the season in a victory Tuesday, when Phoenix won its 11th in a row and improved to a league-leading 17-3 record.
“She went to China and she really put the work in,” Mercury first-year coach Sandy Brondello said, “and she’s put the work in here every day we’ve been here. So it’s about getting physically strong and just understanding, `OK, these are the things I need to work on to be a force in this league.'”
With Taurasi, Griner will represent the Mercury in the WNBA All-Star game Saturday in Phoenix. She is averaging 15.2 points, up from 12.6 as a rookie. She’s pulling down 8.2 rebounds per game, up from 6.3. And, of course, she excels in blocked shots. Her 77 blocks – in 21 games – this season are more than six WNBA teams.
The dunks get the most attention. She has four in 45 games. The rest of the WNBA has six in 3,990 games.
Her first this season came July 29 in Los Angeles, a one-hander when she rose far above the hoop from the baseline and slammed it down.
At Tulsa on June 29, she blocked a WNBA-record 11 shots. She scored a career-high 28 points June 20, also against Tulsa. The previous game, June 16 against Minnesota, she scored 27 points and matched her career high of 18 rebounds. She also had 18 rebounds against San Antonio on June 7.
“Just a year under my belt,” Griner said when asked to explain her better play this season. “I was able to work on my game in the offseason. That’s a big difference.”
She took her skills coach, Dean Demopoulos, when she went to play for Zhejiang Golden Bulls. After experiencing life and basketball far from home, Griner returned stronger and more confident.
Ann Myers Drysdale, one of the great players in women’s basketball history and currently Mercury vice president, said “there’s a sense of maturity” in Griner now.
“I think last year she tried to please everybody,” Myers Drysdale said. “She reminds me a lot of Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal), just that giving back to everybody.”
Brondello said Griner, at 23, is just developing as a player.
“She’s young,” the coach said. “She’s playing against the best players in the world. She’s got all these expectations, but she’s embracing it. She’s very coachable. She’s a great young lady. She wants to be the best, so she’s going to get better and better.”
It has helped greatly that she is surrounded by the veteran talent of Taurasi, Penny Taylor, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree.
“It just helps with your game and takes a lot of pressure off too,” Myers Drysdale said.
And Griner has helped the others.
“If you’ve got a big post player down low,” Brondello said, “it opens it up for everybody else.”
Embracing her role as a prominent gay athlete also has made a difference, those around her say.
“I think it’s great because she’s comfortable in her own skin,” Brondello said, “and she can be a role model for so many people. The public loves her. She gets so much attention but she’s very giving of her time. That’s what I like. She’s a star but she doesn’t have the ego that goes with that.”
Griner likes what she sees as more and more states allow gay marriage. But she knows it’s far from a universal attitude.
“I love the way the country’s changing,” she said. “But it’s still a big issue. A lot of states are changing rules, but it’s still tough.”