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. "She's a totally different player," her teammate, Diana Taurasi, said.
"She's gained her confidence back, her aggression ... and obviously defensively she's a huge force," Taurasi said,
Griner, marvelously fluid at 6 feet 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.
With Taurasi, Griner will represent the Mercury in the WNBA All-Star game. 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.
"Just a year under my belt," Griner said when asked to explain her better play this season.
Brondello said that Griner, 23, is still developing as a player.
"She wants to be the best," the coach said, "so she's going to get better and better."
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."