Brittney Griner’s absence looms over Aces season opener

FILE - Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) shoots during the first half of Game 1 of th ...

When the Aces open their WNBA season Friday against the Phoenix Mercury, one player will be noticeably absent.

Mercury center Brittney Griner, the seven-time all-star and two-time gold medalist with Team USA, was detained in February while playing abroad in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason for allegedly carrying vape cartridges which contained hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.

The Biden administration on Tuesday determined she was being wrongfully detained. With her hearing set for May 19, Griner will almost certainly miss the league’s season opener.

The WNBA has announced it will honor Griner with decals on all 12 courts, but the center’s situation in Russia has opened discussions about why many players choose to play abroad during the offseason.

Like most teams, the Aces have several players who have spent time overseas. Center Kiah Stokes won’t arrive in Las Vegas until mid-May as she fulfills her obligations to Fenerbahçe in Turkey, while forward Theresa Plaisance returned a week into training camp after playing with CDB Clarinos Tenerife in Spain.

“My No. 1 motivation to go overseas is to make money,” Plaisance said.

Plaisance isn’t the only one whose main motivation for opportunities abroad is money. Riquna Williams has played in Turkey, Italy, Israel and the United Arab Emirates among other countries. She’d never turn down a chance to make more money to support her family, but the extra games have taken a toll on her body.

She said she used to get about a month to rest between returning from overseas and reporting to WNBA training camp.

Role players like Plaisance and Williams certainly need overseas opportunities, but higher earners are also looking for more chances to make money. Point guard Kelsey Plum played for Galatasaray in Turkey this season.

“I make good money here, but I make great money over there,” she said.

There are other benefits to playing abroad. Plum believes it has helped her to stay competitive situation during the WNBA’s long offseason. Plaisance thinks she’s in a better basketball rhythm this season because of her time abroad, something she missed out on during the past year while she waited for a back injury to heal.

Forward Dearica Hamby played abroad a few times early in her career but became more reluctant to go overseas after the birth of her daughter. The COVID-19 pandemic ended any chances Hamby would play abroad again.

Despite the advantages of going overseas, Plum admitted in a perfect world she’d play exclusively in the United States. The Aces believe they can provide players with that exact option.

The team’s new training center, which general manager Natalie Williams expects to be ready ahead of the 2023 season, will allow players to workout whenever they want, with the goal of encouraging players to stay in Las Vegas year-round. Team owner Mark Davis said in February he wants to see players’ salaries increase as the sport continues to grow.

“We’re trying to be cutting edge here with the Aces,” Williams said.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.