On Monday night, the most dominant basketball player in the world led her team to their third consecutive Big 12 Conference Tournament championship. Brittney Griner, Baylor’s 6’8 senior center, towers above her sport (literally and metaphorically) in ways even LeBron James and Kevin Durant cannot. Not only is she the tallest player in the women’s game, she’s as fast and as skilled as anyone in the country as well. The best comparisons for Griner in the men’s game come from a time when giants ruled the NBA and games were rarely seen on national TV, but she’s as much a window into the future as a glimpse into the past.
Griner, an athletic 6’8 210 center with an even more preposterous 7’4 wingspan, is an above the rim presence in a below the rim game. She has Anthony Davis’ dimensions in a sport where the average height is 5’11. As a result, she distorts the action in several fundamental ways. When she has the ball in her hands, no one can contest her shot or stay in front of her. The only way to defend her is to zone the paint and shadow her with 2-3 defenders, creating wide-open shots for her All-American teammates. On defense, she blocks shots as easy as Davis did at Kentucky, shutting down the paint almost single-handedly.
Where she’s really improved this season is the level of polish in her offensive game. The game has really slowed down for her; she almost always makes the right decisions with the ball. For the first time in her collegiate career, she has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. She has a very refined post-game and great confidence in her step-back jumper, so there’s really nothing an individual defender can do to prevent her from getting a very high-percentage shot at the basket. Iowa State had a 6’7 center and even she couldn’t block or bother Griner’s 7’4 release point.
Her statistics speak for themselves. As a senior, Griner is averaging 24 points, 9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 4 blocks on 60% shooting. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only NBA player to have approached those numbers, although the league didn’t keep track of blocks when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell played. I wasn’t around for their games in the 1960’s, but I imagine they must have looked like a Baylor women’s game today. When Griner is playing well, she makes the game look unfair for everyone else. The Bears held the No. 23 team in the country down 41-13 at the half on Monday; they routinely beat ranked teams with scores like 83-49 and 85-51.
Baylor had won a national title in 2005, but Griner has brought the program to the level of Tennessee and UConn, who have combined to win 15 titles in the last 25 years. As a sophomore, Griner led the Bears to a 34-3 record and an Elite Eight appearance. In her junior season, they went 40-0 and won the national title. Baylor is 32-1 this season, with only two of their wins coming by less than 10 points. The Bears have gone 105-4 in her last three years in school, which compares favorably to the 88-2 record Kareem compiled at UCLA.
She may have a small learning curve in her rookie season in the WNBA, but it’s hard to imagine her unrivaled physical abilities not translating quickly to the next level. There hasn’t been a men’s prospect as ready to be a professional as Griner since the 1960’s and 1970’s, the last time great players were expected to stay four years in school no matter what. Kareem entered the NBA in 1969 and was an NBA Finals MVP in 1985, a first-team All-NBA C in 1986 and an All-Star in 1989. With that timetable, Griner could be a great player in 2032!
Like Kareem, Griner will be great as long as she’s taller and longer than her opponents. Kareem won an NBA Finals MVP at 23 and 37. When a 7’2 player with a 7’5 wingspan shoots the ball over his head, there’s not much anyone else will be able to do about it. People tell me that no one could match Michael Jordan’s “will to win”, but Kareem could play keep-away with the basketball. He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and has six regular-season MVP’s and six championships on his resume. The modern NBA is a more perimeter-oriented game, but a great 7’2 center would dominate in any era.
The difference is, with the way basketball is played now, the next great 7’2+ player probably won’t be content to stay on the low block. A generation ago, LeBron and Durant would never have developed into perimeter players. Without Michael Jordan and the AAU game that followed him, they would have been turned into centers by their high-school coaches. They are Jordan’s legacy: big men who grew up wanting to be guards with shoe companies of their own. And just as Jordan inspired them, the next generation of basketball players will follow in their footsteps.
That’s the real question: if LeBron is a bigger and more unselfish Jordan, what’s next? Where does the game go from here? If I had to guess, the player who surpasses LeBron will have a game a lot like Brittney Griner’s. As great as LeBron is, he’s not a center. He’s not the tallest player on the floor; he’ll never be as dominant an interior defender as someone who can average 4 blocks a game and force a team to abandon the paint offensively. LeBron is the most versatile defensive player in the NBA, but he didn’t have an answer for Dwight Howard (6’10 260) in 2009 or Dirk Nowitzki (7’0 240) in 2011.
It’s no coincidence that Griner’s frame is so similar to that of Anthony Davis. That’s the evolution of the game in real time: the best players seem to be getting longer and more skilled every year. Durant is the most prominent example, but there have been a number of less successful models to come into the NBA over the last generation. However, from Jonathan Bender to Anthony Randolph and JaVale McGee, none has been able to put the whole package together. I believe a 7’2 240 stretch 5 capable of running point and playing dominant interior defense is possible. But until “Point Kareem” emerges, Griner is as close to the platonic ideal of a great basketball player as there is.