First-time Olympian Brittney Griner understands what it means to serve and represent her country.

“I’m super excited. I wanted to enlist when I was younger. My dad enlisted in the military,” Griner said. “I have a lot of military and law enforcement in my family. To be able to play for my country means everything to me and my dad.”

U.S. women’s basketball team member Brittney Griner talks to teammate Tamika Catchings during practice in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)
U.S. women’s basketball team member Brittney Griner talks to teammate Tamika Catchings during practice in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ryan Wright/Cronkite News)

Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, is one of three first-time Olympians on this year’s U.S. women’s basketball team, which is favored to capture its sixth consecutive gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.

The team began its journey July 23-25 in Los Angeles, with team practices and an exhibition game against the U.S. women’s select team, which the Olympic squad won 88-84.

Griner, along with fellow first-time Olympians Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky and Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm, is part of the future of U.S. women’s basketball. She joins a team that is largely made up of players competing in their third and fourth Olympic Games.

A candidate for the 12th and final roster spot on the 2012 Olympic team, Griner would have become the first college player on the women’s Olympic team since 1988. She withdrew her name from consideration in April of that year, citing family obligations and her summer college schedule as the reasons.

Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut’s Naismith Hall of Fame coach and head coach of the women’s national team since 2009, views Griner as a much different player than the college kid who was being considered in 2012.

“Three years ago when Brittney played for the national team she didn’t get much playing time because she was a step behind the best players in the world,” Auriemma said. “Now, she’s doing to the WNBA players what she did to college players when she was at Baylor. She’s going to get a lot of playing time.”

Griner will be joined on this year’s Olympic team by her Phoenix Mercury teammate and likely future hall-of-famer, Diana Taurasi, who will be competing in her fourth Olympic Games.

Taurasi is optimistic about Griner’s Olympic future and hopes to feel her impact on the team.

“She’s young and I’m sure she will have plenty (of Olympic moments),” Taurasi says. “But she should just enjoy the moment and be in the moment. And grab a rebound or two.”

The team opens Olympic play on Aug. 7 against Senegal at the Deodoro Youth Center in Rio de Janeiro.

Griner is excited to not only share this experience with her WNBA teammate but with her other 10 Olympic teammates as well.

“It always makes it better when you have someone from your team that’s there with you,” Griner said. “But I’ve been around all of these ladies. We feel the camaraderie and the sisterhood, so I’m happy being around all of them.”

Griner, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, says her teammate and fellow former No. 1 overall pick, Taurasi, has given her some simple advice.

“Take it in. Take it all in. Don’t let it go by. It will go by quickly,” Griner said about Taurasi’s words of wisdom. “She (Taurasi) said she wishes she would have taken advantage of some of the small things like being in the village and really taking it in, and that’s what I plan on doing.”

With her inclusion on the 2016 women’s Olympic team, Griner joins a program that has not lost an Olympic game in 24 years.

It is not unimaginable that Griner, at 25, can be the centerpiece of U.S. women’s basketball for the next decade or more.

By Ryan Wright, Cronkite News