PHOENIX — The Phoenix Mercury open the season at home Friday night against the Las Vegas Aces.
One player who won't be on the bench will be prominently on everyone's minds: Brittney Griner.
As the Mercury and the rest of WNBA move forward in the 2022 season, Griner is nearing the three-month mark of her detention in Russia, with no timetable for her release.
“We think about her every day,” Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said recently. “We love her and we’re going to continue to carry her legacy, her voice and play in her honor until she gets back here with us.”
Griner was detained on Feb. 17 after authorities at the Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The Biden administration determined Griner is being wrongfully detained and she has a hearing set for May 19.
The WNBA will honor Griner with a floor decal with her initials on her No. 42 in arenas across the league as she continues to be detained.
A 6-foot-9 center, Griner and WNBA career leading scorer Diana Taurasi have been the key cogs for a Mercury franchise that won the 2014 WNBA title and reached the final last season, losing to the Chicago Sky.
Griner is a six-time All-Star and won consecutive WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2014-15. She had one of the best seasons of her nine-year WNBA career in 2021, leading the WNBA in blocked shots while finishing second in scoring and sixth in rebounding.
Griner again was expected to play a key role for the Mercury this season after the team bolstered its roster with the additions of Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields.
Now Phoenix must adjust to playing without Griner.
“Once you bounce the ball, you start blowing the whistle, that’s all you’re really focused on when you’re a competitor,” Mercury first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “In basketball, at any time, somebody could be injured or something could happen and they wouldn’t be available, and you got to fight with what you got in the moment."