WNBA regular season to start without Brittney Griner, who's still in Russian custody

Brittney Griner, left, and Skylar Diggins-Smith celebrate after defeating the Chicago Sky in Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Finals at Footprint Center on October 13, 2021, in Phoenix.

(CNN)The WNBA's 26th regular season starts Friday without one of the league's most exciting players, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who remains detained in Russia.

The seven-time All-Star was arrested in February at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian authorities of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance -- an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The State Department has classified Griner as wrongfully detained in Russia, and her case is being handled by the office of the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, a State Department official confirmed to CNN on Tuesday. The office leads and coordinates the government's diplomatic efforts aimed at securing the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
    Meanwhile, her team -- which reached the WNBA finals last year -- announced its opening night roster on Thursday, saying the team has been granted an exemption and salary cap relief until Griner "makes her safe return home."
      The Mercury will host the Las Vegas Aces in the opening game tonight.
        "It's a delicate situation," four-time All-Star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said Thursday regarding her teammate.
        "It's hard. And it sucks when you guys keep asking us because it's emotional to deal with. It's triggering. But we love our sister. We miss our sister. We're going to continue to play in her honor until she gets back," Diggins-Smith said.
          A WNBA spokesperson said earlier this week the league views federal authorities' move to classify Griner as wrongfully detained as a "positive development and a next step to getting her home."
          "Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement Tuesday.
          The WNBA will honor Griner this season by branding her initials (BG) and jersey number (42) on all 12 home courts.
            Last season, Griner finished second in Most Valuable Player Award voting. The 6'9" center led the Mercury to the WNBA Finals, where Phoenix lost to the Chicago Sky.
            She's also a two-time Olympic gold medalist and played for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.