Photo credit: Jim Mone/AP

The shots are falling for Brittney Griner. Through her first nine games of the 2017 WNBA season, she averaging almost 24 points per game on 57 percent shooting. She’s also shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line. But don’t call it a hot start. Don’t call it an offensive streak, either. Call it what it is—the continued maturation of one of the WNBA’s best and most popular players.

Griner leads the team in minutes and, for the first time in her professional career, she is the leading scorer in the WNBA—even with future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi on the same roster. What’s notable about that is this is the points aren’t just coming on dunks and uncontested layups.

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So, what’s different this season? Griner sums it up in one word: “Confidence. When you’re confident, you’re going to do things a little differently. You’re not going to be hesitant to take a shot, you’re not going to be hesitant to make a certain move. Building confidence overseas has played a big part in my start this season.”

“I think it’s just a mindset and a focus to be dominant when she gets into the game,” added Taurasi. “For her, I think it’s been a long time coming because we always knew she had this ability. I think everyone has seen her become a dominant force and right now she is playing unbelievable.”

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When the Phoenix Mercury drafted Griner first overall in the 2013 WNBA Draft, they knew what they were getting—a 6-foot-8, raw basketball talent with a wingspan wide enough to qualify for an aviation test. She had all the tools necessary to succeed in the WNBA. Her affable and easy-going personality also made her marketable, and Nike scooped her up with an endorsement deal from the jump.

Griner made an immediate impact on the court, delighting fans with ferocious blocks and hard dunks, but she lacked the kind of polish necessary to become a real offensive weapon. Having a teammate like Taurasi, both in Phoenix and in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg, was probably the best thing that could have happened for Griner’s basketball confidence and evolution.

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“Diana has really taught me the game,” Griner said. “She’s always quizzed me by asking me questions, even if she knew the answer to them to make sure I knew, and why, I was doing something. The best advice she’s ever given me is if you’re going to do something, don’t do it halfway or half-ass. And that’s really helped out my game.”

Griner’s game has always been good around the rim. Defensively, she’s a problem for every other team in the league. The three-time WNBA All-Star has won the Defensive Player of the Year Award twice (2014, 2015) and led the WNBA in blocks four years in a row. Offensively, she’s always been able to run to the rim and put home easy layups. What’s different about this season is that Griner’s footwork, outside jumper, post moves, and off-ball movement have evolved considerably.

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“It’s pretty unbelievable, really. We’ve always known [Griner] had this talent and ability, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time to come to fruition,” Taurasi explained. “She’s put the hard work in, she’s committed herself to basketball playing year around and getting better by playing with the national team, in China and Europe, so all the credit goes to her. I’m just here enjoying it and trying to help her.”

This season, it’s clear that Griner’s footwork has improved immensely. Her steps are more determined, self-assured and decisive. When she gets the ball in her hands, she knows what she wants to do with it and she’s visibly more confident in those decisions.

“Footwork is the foundation to my offensive game,” Griner said. “Being able to move, pivot around and dribble better were the big things I wanted to add to my game, as well as stretching out my game so I can shoot away from the basket better.”

Griner is also more adept at controlling her body as she goes up for the shot, often getting fouled in the process. Add her offensive output to the 3.8 blocks and 7.4 rebound average she has maintained thus far, and what you see is a complete, overall game. And with Taurasi now well into her basketball twilight years in Phoenix, this may be the year that the torch is finally passed down to Griner as the go-to player and leader on the court.

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“At this point in our careers I think it’s perfect with her ability to make plays on both ends now. It’s definitely her time to carry it and I’ll be here to do whatever I need to do.”

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Griner said it feels good to be playing the best basketball of her career thus far, and that she’s ready to take on that role.

“Dee isn’t going anywhere until I leave,” Griner joked. “But I am ready. At first I wasn’t, but now with my confidence growing, I’m okay with doing that now. Everybody is always telling me that the sky’s the limit and that the cup is only half full, so I still have a lot more to go from here.”