Basketball-Griner, ‘superteams’ in focus as WNBA season kicks off

By Amy Tennery

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Brittney Griner is back in action for the Phoenix Mercury while the New York Liberty and defending champions Las Vegas Aces are expected to usher in the WNBA’s “superteam” era when a new season tips off on Friday.


The two-time Olympic gold medalist Griner was already among the biggest names in the league and her return to the court just months after she was released from a Russian penal colony is expected to be a major draw for fans.

She played for the first time since returning home in a pre-season affair against the Los Angeles Sparks last week, telling reporters she never expected to return so quickly to the sport but was committed to producing her best.

“It was cool, and then at the same time, I was sitting there looking around, zoned out a little bit,” said Griner, who will open her season on the road against the Sparks on Friday.

“It was a lot to take it all in and it was good to get this one out of the way before we go out to L.A.”

Her biggest problems this year are likely to come from New York and Las Vegas, with the two teams snapping up some of the league’s best talent in the off-season with the WNBA’s top prize in focus.

The Liberty got 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in a three-team trade in January and only a month later announced the blockbuster acquisition of third all-time assist leader Courtney Vandersloot and twice WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart in open free agency.

They join former first overall pick and All-Star Sabrina Ionescu on the hunt to bring home a maiden title to the Brooklyn fans.

“There’s a buzz in the air here with our signings. I mean, these are some of the best players in the league,” head coach Sandy Brondello told reporters this week.

The Liberty exited in the first round of the playoffs last year for the second season in a row and open their 2023 campaign in Washington, D.C., against the Mystics.

The Aces, meanwhile, are showing no interest in relinquishing their WNBA crown with the signing of twice MVP Candace Parker, who won the championship with the Sparks and Chicago Sky in 2016 and 2021, respectively.

She will join reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and All-Star Kelsey Plum, along with two-time champion Alysha Clark, who also signed as a free agent.

“Candace obviously brings a ‘GOAT’ (Greatest of All Time) status with her and a certain element of savvy, and being a veteran,” said head coach Becky Hammon.

“I’m thrilled with what Alysha has been giving to the group, and especially defensively she’s going to be a big piece for us.”

The league this week handed Hammon a two-game suspension for violating the league’s “Respect in the Workplace” policies in relation to comments made about two-time All-Star Dearica Hamby’s recent pregnancy.

The Aces traded Hamby to the Sparks during the off-season. On Wednesday, Hammon denied any wrongdoing.

“I handled Dearica with care from day one,” she told reporters. “I’ll take my little lump on the chin and keep it moving.”

The Aces play the Storm in Seattle on Saturday.

(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Christopher Cushing)