Brittney Griner will miss the Phoenix Mercury's upcoming road trip in order to focus on her mental health, the team announced on Saturday. The All-Star center will be out for at least two games, though the nature of the press release suggests a longer absence could be in store.
"The Mercury fully support Brittney and we will continue to work together on a timeline for her return," the team stated.
Griner made her return to the WNBA this summer after missing all of last season while detained in Russia on drug charges. She was sentenced to nine years in prison and spent nearly 10 months in Russian custody prior to her release via a prisoner swap in December of 2022.
After such a traumatic experience and a significant time away from the time, it was unclear when or if she would play again. However, she was determined to get back on the court as soon as possible. She signed a one-year deal with the Mercury in free agency and worked extremely hard to be ready for opening night.
She put up 18 points, six rebounds and four blocks that night, and has largely been her usual self ever since. A short absence in June due to a hip injury was the only on-court hiccup, and through 20 games she is averaging 18.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game on 57.5% shooting. Earlier this month she was named an All-Star starter and made her ninth appearance in the annual event, which is tied for the fourth-most all-time.
Her return has not come without challenges, though. In addition to the injury, she dealt with a frightening incident in early June at the Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport. A social media provocateur approached her and the team in the concourse while they were waiting for a flight and started shouting verbal abuse while filming the incident. No one was hurt, but the episode was a reminder that she isn't completely safe even though she's back on American soil.
In the aftermath, the Mercury and Griner were given permission to fly charter for the remainder of the season.
"I'll say this. I think we should have already had the option to use a different airline, a more private airline, charter flights," Griner said at the time. "It's a shame that it had to get to rock bottom, because I feel like waiting for something to happen and then making a change ... you don't know what that 'something's' gonna be. We've all seen what can happen in this world. And when you play the, 'Let's-wait-and-see-game' you're really playing with fire. You're playing with people's lives.
"So I'm glad that they finally got it together. And, you know, are gonna allow us to do this. It's just a shame that it took so damn long, honestly."
Those comments, along with this upcoming break, make it clear that although she's performed admirably this season, she is still dealing with the effects of her experience in Russia. She should take as much time as she needs before returning to play.
Griner's mental health is the most important aspect here, but it's also worth considering the Mercury's basketball situation. Skylar Diggins-Smith has been on maternity leave all season, and Diana Taurasi is now sidelined as well due to quad and toe injuries. At 6-17, they sit in 10th place and are 2.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Given their current and future outlook, missing the playoffs and securing a spot in the lottery for one of the most anticipated draft classes in league history is crucial. It's impossible to ignore that it will be easier for them do to so without Griner.