Could Brittney Griner make it in the NBA?

Brittney-Griner

Brittney Griner is an excellent NCAA player. This season she posted the following numbers for Baylor:

  • 23.8 points per game (3rd), with a 63.4% True Shooting percentage.
  • 9.4 rebounds per game (64th)
  • 4.1 blocks per game (2nd)

Over her college career, Griner set the record for most blocks in a season (223) and most career blocks (748) by any NCAA player, male or female. She ranks second in career points for female NCAA players, trailing only Jackie Stiles, and is tied for the third-most career triple-doubles in NCAA Women’s basketball. Her Baylor profile page is filled with accolades and career accomplishments, and she will likely be the #1 pick in the WNBA’s 2013 draft (to be held on April 15th). Her hands are bigger than LeBron James’ and her wingspan is longer than Andrew Bynum’s. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said the following about Griner:

“If she is the best on the board [in the 2013 NBA draft], I will take her. I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now, I’d lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it’s not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it. She’d still have to make the team. I’m not going to carry her just to carry her. I don’t think, anyways. But I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to giving her the opportunity.”

Could Brittney Griner make it in the NBA?

The facts

At 6’8″, she is an extremely tall woman. The average height of a WNBA player is around 6’0″ tall. In the WNBA, she would be tied for the third tallest player in WNBA history. But in the NBA, 6’8″ is close to the average height. The graph below represents the height of all WNBA and NBA players currently on team rosters, with Griner’s height highlighted in yellow:

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Similarly, at 208 pounds, Griner would be in the 90% percentile for weight in the WNBA. But in the NBA, 208 pounds is actually below average (NBA average weight fluctuates between 220-225 pounds). When combined with her height, this means that Griner — a player who is accustomed to having a large size advantage against her opponents — would actually be smaller than most NBA players.

In addition to size, Griner would have to overcome physiological differences. NBA players are much stronger and can jump much higher than WNBA players. Simply speaking about the difference between the average male and the average female in terms of strength, females who rank in the 90th percentile would typically rank in the 10th-30th percentile if we compared them to the male population. Elite male athletes probably increase this gap even further. So not only is Griner undersized, she also can’t make up for it by relying on strength or jumping ability.

Because of all this, Griner wouldn’t be able to play centre in the NBA. She would be forced to match up with forwards. Power forwards would still have a size advantage on her, and small forwards would have speed and skill advantagesBecause she’s always had a large height advantage over her opponents, she hasn’t had to develop some of the skills that shorter players use. It would be a very difficult transition to go from centre to small forward.

And don’t forget the ball: the ball used in women’s leagues is smaller (1 inch in circumference) and lighter (2 ounces) than the ball used in men’s leagues. The muscle memory that Griner has developed from years of practicing would be thrown off by a larger and heavier ball. While she could adjust given enough time, she probably wouldn’t be ready in time for an NBA workout.

The verdict

Nancy Lieberman, the famous women’s basketball player and coach, thinks that Griner should go for it. As quoted by Mark Stein:

There’s nothing but unbelievable, historical upside. I would do it in a minute. There is no downside to her trying.

Lieberman played summer league ball with the Lakers and the Jazz in the early 80s and played against men in the USBL. She had the following to say about her experience playing basketball against men:

I was extraordinarily average on my best days. And I was a point guard, so I could stay away from the physicality of the game and still do some of my job, which was IQ, passing, running the team. I always had somebody chasing me who was quick, but I wasn’t getting knocked over or elbowed everywhere. I can tell you from experience…you cannot compensate for the physical difference. But [playing with men] made me see the game better, think the game better, understand the game better, be more efficient with the game. There’s not one day that I ever thought, ‘I shouldn’t do this.’

I agree with Lieberman: if given the chance, Griner should definitely accept an invitation to an NBA workout, as she has nothing to lose from trying. If she’s able to hold her own against other potential NBA players, the team should sign her. But I find it highly unlikely that she would be able to make it in the NBA — even as a benchwarmer.

Dre here, had to chime in with one other point:

There’s one very simple reason for Griner to go for the NBA and that is pay. The cap of a WNBA team is below one million dollars. In fact, the last pick of the first round of the NBA draft will make about as much as an entire WNBA team. Even second round picks are worth a little over a guaranteed million over two years. And if Griner went undrafted, she’d actually be able to negotiate for much higher salaries. In short, if there is any shot of a guaranteed contract in the NBA, Griner should go for it, as it would easily trump anything she could make in the WNBA.

The final note

Brittney Griner is an amazing female basketball player who is set to revolutionize the WNBA. Why should she have to prove herself against male players? Why try to become a fringe NBA player when she can try to re-write the WNBA record book? We should resist the urge to compare female athletes to male athletes. There are physiological differences that mean, in most cases, the best female athletes can’t compare to the best male athletes. While female athletes should continue to strive for improvement, the best frame of reference is prior performance by females, not males. We should appreciate women’s basketball, female basketball players, and other elite female athletes in general for what they are: really good athletes. It’s time to forget about the “for a woman” qualifier.

Brittney Griner is an amazing basketball player. I wish her all the best in her WNBA career.

- Devin

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