Phoenix's 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner grinned at the mention of Dallas' 6-8 Liz Cambage, and vice versa. The two centers faced off in the WNBA's season opener on May 18 in Phoenix. And both were happy to have the other to go against.
"I love it, because I get to play against more bigs now," said Griner, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013. "When I first came out of college, it seemed like the league was maybe getting smaller. But now, it's like the big girls are taking over. And there are all different types of big players. ... I think it makes the league exciting."
Cambage, the No. 2 overall pick in 2011, played that season and 2013 in the WNBA but didn't return until this year. She echoed Griner's excitement about the talent among the league's big players.
"I love Brittney; I've watched her develop since her rookie year," Cambage said. "It's good for us going against bigger bodies more games, rather than chasing around those undersized [power forwards]. They get away with everything."
Cambage laughed as she said that, and it's not as if she still won't have to deal with guarding and being guarded by smaller players. But Cambage's return meant another so-called true center was in the league; one of similar height and skill set to last year's MVP of the regular season and WNBA Finals, Minnesota's 6-6 Sylvia Fowles.
"There's been a resurgence in the center position," said Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi, who has done so much to help teammate Griner grow as a pro player. "There were some seasons I've been in the league where I don't think teams felt they had to have one really dominant center, let alone a backup center. But that's really important now.
"Everything goes in cycles, doesn't it? I think more teams are looking to go inside first now, and the guards are more secondary options when that initial post isn't open. At the end of the day, the great teams have to find a balance. But there are a lot of great bigs out there right now, where you have to talk about them and prepare for them extensively before games."
Historically, the Sparks' 6-5 Lisa Leslie, the Storm's 6-5 Lauren Jackson and the Monarchs' 6-4 Yolanda Griffith rate as the WNBA's greatest centers. Leslie and Jackson were both three-time MVPs who each won two WNBA titles; Griffith won the MVP once and one WNBA championship. They were all exceptional defensive players.
Of the three, Jackson was the most versatile offensively; she made 436 3-pointers in her WNBA regular-season career and 44 more in the playoffs. Leslie gets the nod as the best rebounder; her 3,307 boards are second all time to Fever forward Tamika Catchings' 3,316.
However, the general topic of WNBA centers, past and present, is complicated. Who is a true 5, who is a stretch-4, who is an equal combination of both (perhaps depending on whom she's playing with or against)? Add to it that there are some bigs who are really guards with post-up skills -- and the fact that a team's biggest player might not be its center or guard opposing centers.
Players such as Fowles, Griner and Cambage, though, are more straightforward, easy-to-categorize, old-school centers. They have one made 3-pointer between them in the WNBA; Fowles hit her only attempt from behind the arc, in 2010. Griner has never taken a 3; Cambage went 0-for-5 from long range her rookie year.
They are also among the eight players currently on WNBA rosters who are 6-6 or taller. The other low-block specialists in that group are Las Vegas' Carolyn Swords, Atlanta's Imani McGee-Stafford and New York rookie Mercedes Russell (whose future on the Liberty's roster is uncertain once the team gets all its players back).
The two more diverse offensive games of this group of eight belong to Connecticut's Jonquel Jones and Dallas rookie Azura Stevens, both 6-6. Jones is listed as a forward, and Stevens a forward/center.
Jones led the WNBA in rebounding last season (11.9 per game) and was named the league's most improved player while also averaging 15.4 points. She's an adept 3-point shooter, making 25 of 56 last season (44.6 percent). She showed off that skill Thursday in the Sun's comeback win over the Sparks, making both 3-point attempts on the way to 17 points and playing well in tandem with 6-4 forward Chiney Ogwumike (18 points).
Sparks coach Brian Agler is short on post players right now due to injury or waiting for players to report. At full strength, his Sparks don't have a true center. They have two former MVP post players in 6-4 Candace Parker (as versatile as any big woman in league history) and 6-2 Nneka Ogwumike, who generally guards opposing centers. Off the bench, he has 6-4 Jantel Lavender, who is more in the true center vein, although she has made nine 3-pointers in her career. And we haven't yet seen 6-4 Maria Vadeeva, the Sparks' top draft choice, play in the WNBA.
As Agler looks around the league, he acknowledges the difficulties posed by the biggest of the bigs like Fowles, whose rebounding prowess was a key factor in the Lynx beating the Sparks in the WNBA Finals last year.
"They can all put a lot of pressure on the defense," Agler said. "Jonquel is not an offensive player who plays with her back to the basket, but she's around the rim a lot on offensive boards. Sylvia probably plays the most with her back to the basket.
"Griner does quite a bit, too. And Cambage is going to be a force; she's really talented offensively. So they're all a little bit different, but they'll all have a dominant presence if you let them play to their strengths."
It might seem odd to have gotten this far and not mentioned New York's 6-4 Tina Charles, who is listed as a center but might be better described as a power forward. She is also a past MVP, and she has the highest career rebounding average (10.03) among all WNBA players, past or present. Under former Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer -- and continuing under current coach Katie Smith -- New York has tried to have other bigs around Charles to free her up a little more offensively. But she's still the center of attention.
Charles is in a larger group of WNBA players who are 6-5 or 6-4, most of whom spend a lot of time on the low block whether or not they are designated as centers. The biggest of the bigs like Griner, Cambage and Fowles can pose some challenges for them, but it makes for some fascinating matchups throughout the league.
This year's No. 1 draft pick, 6-4 center A'ja Wilson of Las Vegas, is a big whose game should continue to expand after she was national college player of the year this past season. And it will be interesting to see how two 6-7 college centers who will be seniors this fall -- Mississippi State's Teaira McCowan and Baylor's Kalani Brown, both on espnW's All-America teams this past season -- impact the WNBA in 2019.
Observing all this is Wings assistant coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin, one of the all-time craftiest undersized posts in WNBA history. A 6-2 forward/center, she effectively guarded a wide range of players and won WNBA titles with Detroit in 2008 and Minnesota in 2011. Now she's mentoring Cambage, Stevens and 6-5 center Breanna Lewis in Dallas under coach Fred Williams, while helping him strategize against the league's best bigs.
"We keep it simple: having one or two main moves, and then a counter," McWilliams-Franklin said. "I had a million moves I could do, but I needed that because I was so small.
"With Breanna, it's no dribbling: catch and go. With Azura, it's stretching the defense and then attacking and rebounding. With Liz, it's just refining her post skills -- when she touches the ball, not letting people push her out, working on spins. Just her movement and footwork."
McWilliams-Franklin relishes the variety of centers and forward/centers in the league and thinks the key to helping them be their best is not changing too much.
"Let them do what they do, and then make a few adjustments," she said. "Even the young kids, they have their identity of who they are and who they want to be. Then you tweak little things."
Those little things that, hopefully, can make a big's game even bigger.