‘An irreplaceable void’: How Brittney Griner’s absence affects Team USA at FIBA World Cup

    M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

The 2022 FIBA World Cup will be the first major competition that the U.S. women’s basketball team will compete in without Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner since the 2012 Summer Olympics. The World Cup, which starts Wednesday in Sydney, will be a poignant marker for the women’s basketball world that one of its most recognizable stars of the past decade is facing an uncertain future in a Russian prison.

Griner has been detained since February, when she was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Griner had been prescribed medical cannabis in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, but it is illegal in Russia. She was given a nine-year sentence in August, and now she awaits the possibility of a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap, along with fellow American detainee Paul Whelan.

“She really has [been a stalwart of USA Basketball] and that’s something our players have dealt with the entirety of the season,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx said. “She’s on our minds daily, and we’ll honor her. No one will wear 15. So just finding ways to continue to make sure she knows that she’s being thought of and our players are thinking of her daily.”

Griner, the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in 2013, has been an enthusiastic participant in USA Basketball senior national team events since she made the squad for the 2014 World Cup, which she played in just a couple of weeks after winning the WNBA title with the Mercury. In the Tokyo Olympics last year, Griner averaged 16.5 points, tied for the U.S. lead with Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, and 7.2 rebounds.

“She’s a big part of our sisterhood,” said Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd, who was Griner’s U.S. teammate in Tokyo. “Getting to know her over the past couple years has been great. She has been nothing but amazing to me and my family. And it’s just heartbreaking to know that she’s still over there and she’s not here.

“So it’s a little extra motivation for everyone, I think, who steps on the court and knew her, to play for her. Because she gave everything she had every single time she was part of any basketball team, and definitely USA Basketball.”

The Lynx’s Sylvia Fowles, Seattle’s Tina Charles and Griner are veteran centers who have long been standouts of the Americans’ inside game. But none of them will be playing in this World Cup.

Fowles, who turns 37 next month, has retired, while Charles, 33, appears to be finished with her USA Basketball career. Fowles won gold medals in four Olympics and one World Cup, while Charles won three golds in each. Griner, who will be 32 in October, has two gold medals in each event.

Those three players are all more traditional low-block threats. The 6-foot-9 Griner has made 6 of 17 3-point attempts in her regular-season WNBA career, and the 6-6 Fowles made her one attempt in 2010. The 3-pointer has been a much bigger part of the 6-4 Charles’ game, as she has made 174 in the regular season. Charles is the only one of the three who has made a 3-pointer in the Olympics or World Cup; she had three treys in the Tokyo Games.

Without that trio, 2022 WNBA MVP Wilson, 26, and Seattle forward Breanna Stewart, 28, are the most experienced post players on the current U.S. roster. The 6-5 Wilson just won the WNBA title with the Aces on Sunday, and will be arriving late in Australia. The 6-4 Stewart led the United States in rebounding (10.0 RPG) at the Tokyo Games, where she averaged 15.0 points.

Newcomer post players on the U.S. team will be 6-5 C/F Shakira Austin, 22, who just finished her rookie season with the Washington Mystics, and Connecticut Sun teammates 6-3 forward Brionna Jones, 26, and 6-2 forward Alyssa Thomas, 30, who were the runners-up this WNBA season.

They are all talented posts, but the United States won’t have the same size or international experience without Fowles, Charles and Griner. And while Fowles and Charles weren’t expected to be part of this U.S. team, Griner was. “To not have BG here, obviously, it’s an irreplaceable void,” Stewart said. “We’re really just hoping that she’s going to be home as soon as possible, hoping that she’s doing as good as she can be under the circumstances, but knowing that she has such a big role in USA Basketball from how she dominates on the court and is a caring human being off the court.

“It’s tough because you have these moments where it’s like, ‘She should be here, she would be here’ and also at the same time, it’s bigger than basketball. Having her be home safe and healthy and back with her family is the No. 1 priority.”

Aside from no American wearing Griner’s jersey number from past competitions, what will Team USA do to honor her? FIBA has some restrictions about political statements made during the event, and the Americans are aware of that. But Griner’s WNBA peers see this as a humanitarian issue involving their colleague and friend.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, met with President Biden on Friday to discuss what is being done to try to get Griner released.

“I think we’re going to continue to speak out, to continue to amplify her name, put pressure as much as we can on the White House,” Stewart said. “It was amazing that Cherelle was able to meet with President Biden, and hopefully that means that things are continuing to move forward with getting her home.

“But I think the best way to represent her and honor her is going and winning the gold medal.”

ESPN’s Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.

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