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Such Great Heights

Maya Moore has already made her mark on the WNBA. That means the next question for the league is, what will Brittney Griner bring?

Maya Moore was late. She ducked into the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first preseason game at the Target Center this October just after tip-off, the brim of her black hat pulled low and her 54-year-old mother in tow. It didn’t take long for the crowd to notice.

Within minutes, an injured Kevin Love had abandoned the Timberwolves bench in favor of a front-row seat along the baseline next to Moore and her mother. At halftime, a line of fans snaked through the aisle; Moore smiled and shook hands and posed for anyone willing to wait.

She’s a celebrity in Minnesota. Maya Moore: Olympian, starting Lynx forward, household name. Her team won a championship in 2011 and returned to the Finals a year later, eventually falling to the Indiana Fever in four games. But even in defeat, Moore was the most recognizable face of the series. She is, without a doubt, the league’s present; its brightest star, its biggest talent. Moore built her celebrity on a 90-game winning streak at UConn, where she established herself as the kind of player so dedicated she’d send texts to her coaches analyzing her shooting at practice, but so down-to-earth she’d fetch teammates water on the bench. She has size and she has strength and she has agility. With her combination of talent, celebrity, and charm, the 23-year-old has garnered a measure of mainstream attention for the WNBA. Now the challenge will be to sustain it.

Maya Moore loved the WNBA from the start. She loved it when it was no more than a date on her calendar: June 21, 1997. For her eighth birthday, 10 days before the league’s first game, her uncle gave her a pair of regulation-size WNBA basketballs, one outdoor, one indoor. She watched as the New York Liberty beat the Los Angeles Sparks, 67-57, in the league’s inaugural game, and when her family moved from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Charlotte the next year and Atlanta after that, she brought her WNBA posters with her. She wore a Comets T-shirt after Houston won the first championship. She took her indoor ball on all her AAU trips. In Atlanta, Moore had no interest in the Hawks. She didn’t care about the Braves and — despite spending her youth in Cardinals territory — wasn’t interested in St. Louis’s storied baseball franchise, either. These days, Maya Moore barely remembers a world without the league for which she is now a star.

“I was a junkie,” Moore said. “I was a basketball junkie. I’ll admit it.”

The same probably goes for Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-8 Baylor phenom projected to be the no. 1 overall pick in April’s WNBA draft whose overpowering, aggressive game is hard to ignore.1 (Here are your obligatory links to Griner dunk videos.) But besides their shared obvious talent, Griner is nothing like Moore. She’s eight inches taller, with size and skills that make Moore appear a mere mortal in a world where she’s been exalted for half a decade. From the moment of tip-off, it seems, many opponents provide no challenge whatsoever for Griner. Maybe they’re intimidated. Or maybe Griner is so tall, so strong, so capable that to line up against her is to render oneself irrelevant.

What Griner does on the court, she does on a scale unprecedented in the women’s game. To watch her play is to see a human grenade explode; she’s coiled and streamlined and aerodynamic until that moment when she throws all of her 208 pounds at the basket and unleashes, a mess of arms and legs going everywhere.

If Griner is a grenade, Moore is a sniper. She sees her target without the obstructions, without the players lurking in front of her. She drops a shoulder, spins, lunges, a different machination every time to trick a defender and somehow arc the basketball precisely where it needs to be. Footwork and instincts make the process look far easier than it is, and though she doesn’t dunk — at least not in games — Moore does what she does so precisely as to make everyone around her just a bit duller by comparison.

Although we’re months away from Griner’s WNBA debut, and Baylor’s season is already marred with an early 71-69 loss to Stanford,2 the spotlight has begun to move from Minneapolis to Waco. Yes, Moore inked an endorsement deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand, the first female basketball player to do so. She was the catalyst behind the Lynx’s jump from second-worst in the league in 2010 to champions one year later. But now, less than two years into her professional career, Moore has become more of an institution than a sensation. She’s still on pace to develop into one of the very best in WNBA history, but it’s clear Griner is the next best thing. Really, even that might not be completely accurate. Brittney Griner might not be just the next best thing. She might be the best thing. Period.

Maya Moore

It’s not a question of whether these two superstars can coexist in the WNBA, but rather whether the WNBA can finally capitalize on them. Since her Baylor team won its championship in April, talk of Griner’s entry into the league next summer has escalated. She’s Maya Moore 2.0, her name synonymous with basketball above the rim. But don’t sleep on Griner’s defensive acumen. Her 88-inch wingspan is as long as Anthony Davis’s, and her grip is bigger than LeBron’s.

“She just changes what open is,” Moore said. “Offensively, you can do a few things to try to maybe push her off of her comfort zone, just like any good player, but then you kind of have to hope she misses. But defensively, it’s more ‘What do you do with that?’ You think you’re open, and then she takes two steps and you’re not open.”

Moore entered the league with monumental hype. On April 12, the day after the draft, 38,154 fans at Target Field watched a propeller plane circling overhead, trailing a banner that read: “WELCOME MAYA MOORE LYNX OPENER JUNE 5.” And that was just the beginning. The team developed “Maya plans,” including covering an entire wall of the Minneapolis skyway with facts about Moore and her career; special season-ticket packages; custom T-shirts; and plenty of plays on “getting Moore.” Some version of that will be true in Phoenix — whose Mercury hold the no. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA draft and are expected to select Griner — and such efforts will be necessary. Griner will enter the league on the heels of a season in which her Baylor team appeared on national television in 10 of its regular-season games; it’s unlikely she’ll get that kind of exposure in the WNBA. But it’s not as if Griner hasn’t pushed her team’s popularity before; last season Baylor twice set school attendance records and recorded three advance sellouts for the first time in the program’s history. Moore’s Lynx have increased their appearances on ABC and ESPN networks from one in 2011 to four in 2012, and Griner should have a similarly large impact in Phoenix. The Lynx’s gains have been good by WNBA standards, but can Griner be the catalyst of a bump in attendance and exposure that’s not qualified within that niche market?

Before Moore, there was Candace Parker. Before Parker, Diana Taurasi. They were the queens of college ball before becoming the WNBA’s marketing gold, though none had the fanfare of Moore when she arrived in the league. Each has cultivated a personality as a pro: Parker as something of a sex symbol, Taurasi as the villain, both as talented, chippy players known to mouth off and tussle on the court. But platforms for their celebrity were few. In fact, this line of college stars whose fame faded when they turned pro goes back to the early days of the league, when Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke came into the league with three Olympic medals between them and went on to win a combined four WNBA titles, but the league still failed to capitalize on their success.

“I think it’s always a case of the latest is the greatest,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Whoever is the most recent and most successful in people’s minds is who people perceive as the most marketable person.”

But the popularity of Moore, Parker, and the rest hasn’t grown precipitously since they left school, and they, especially Moore, are still best known for what they did at the collegiate level. There’s no reason to believe Griner won’t follow a similar pattern; she’s different from every other player, yes, but is she different enough to steer her own course?

In October, Auriemma caused a stir when he suggested lowering the rims in the women’s game. There’s no question that Auriemma wants what’s best — his career hinges on it, after all — and the proposal was clever, too. (He suggested dropping the 10-foot rim by 7.2 inches, which would honor Title IX’s 1972 institution.) The idea sparked chatter, but Auriemma, the godfather of the women’s game, is hardly the first to publicly and dramatically suggest ways to fix it.

For example: In 2003, a group of businessmen affiliated with the Mohegan Sun casino purchased the Orlando Miracle and brought the team north to Connecticut, where they figured throngs of UConn fans would love a professional franchise. The new owners moved the Sun (as they renamed the team) into a smaller arena, and in 2010, it became the first-ever WNBA team to turn a profit. Although the move to independent, rather than NBA-affiliated, ownership sparked a trend (five more franchises followed suit), no other team has adopted the scaled-down venue.

What the Sun set in motion shouldn’t be taken lightly. WNBA president Laurel Richie adamantly believes the league should be treated as a separate entity from the men’s league. She’s even known to drop “NBA” from its name, instead calling it “The W” in an apparent attempt to emphasize women. Yeah, it sounds like the hotel chain, but at least she’s trying — and she might have the right idea. This isn’t just a summer extension of the NBA, and focusing on what makes it different might be the WNBA’s best battle cry.

So no, the rest of the league hasn’t adopted the Sun’s scaled-down version of the game, and there’s been no consensus in response to Auriemma’s grand scheme. To properly execute what he’s suggesting would involve top-down coordination, and it’s the kind of last-ditch effort that would be a long time in the making. Regardless, there’s no question that some kind of change is coming, good or bad, and even the most radical ideas might be worth something.

Another game-changer just might be Griner. The year before she arrived at Baylor, the Bears scored an average of 69.3 points per game, giving up 57.4. By last season, those numbers had improved to 78.4 and 52.1. The stats only tell part of the story, though. Griner outplays and outmatches her opponents to the point that it’s easy to feel sorry for them. Despite that kind of transformative dominance, though, Griner is just one player on one team, and Moore, for what it’s worth, couldn’t care less about this vague notion of change.

“What does that actually mean?” she said. “The league is pretty cool if you watch the games right now. I don’t know what you want to change.”

When Maya Moore won her 90th consecutive game at UConn, it was hard to imagine anyone being better. When Griner dunked and stomped her way to a championship last spring, the same was true. The stage is set for a new focus in women’s basketball — the most dominant rivalry the WNBA has seen yet.

Moore and Griner haven’t faced off since November 16, 2010, when top-ranked UConn faced no. 2 Baylor in a rematch of the previous season’s national semifinal.3 UConn won, 65-64, before a packed crowd of 12,628 at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut. Moore finished the night with 30 points, responsible for nearly half her team’s scoring. Griner had 19 points and nine blocked shots.

Take one of those swats, Griner’s fifth, near the end of the first half. She barely left the ground as she batted the ball down. It was effortless. But as quickly as the ball took a high bounce to her left, there was Moore, out of nowhere, tipping it into the basket with her left hand. Then later, with UConn trailing by eight and with about seven minutes remaining, Moore drove to the basket. Baylor guard Jordan Madden trailed her as she lunged into the paint, and suddenly there was Griner, looming and ready. Moore took the shot anyway. She drew a foul, cut into Baylor’s lead, and — perhaps most important — made Griner look like any other defender.

Fourteen points later, the win was Moore’s, UConn’s winning streak was intact, and Griner’s masterful work was undone by one of the few players who had figured out how to do so. That show is coming to the WNBA in a matter of months, and really, who wouldn’t want to watch it?

Joan Niesen (@JoanNiesen) covers the Timberwolves and the NBA for Fox Sports North in Minneapolis.

Filed Under: Future, General topics, Heights, NBA, Series, Sports, The Future