May 20, 2021 

Mercedes Russell and Epiphanny Prince re-join the Seattle Storm

What their returns mean for Dan Hughes' team

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Image courtesy of the Seattle Storm

There aren’t many certainties from a team’s first two games. The Seattle Storm sit with a 1-1 record after a pair of contests versus the Las Vegas Aces. Considering the competition, this is a respectable start. However, it’s clear the roster has many new faces and needs time together.

In fact, the roster is still returning players from overseas. The team announced the returns of Mercedes Russell and Epiphanny Prince on Wednesday. This should mean Dan Hughes is working with all the tools on his belt, but no: Katie Lou Samuelson departed the same day for an Olympic 3-on-3 qualifying tournament in France.

Nonetheless, Russell and Prince could provide some familiarity to a locker room with many new faces. Russell is just one of four current Storm who have played for Hughes before. Although Prince played with the Storm in the Wubble last season, Hughes did not coach that team.

Russell’s familiarity with Hughes—and vice versa—should benefit the Storm. Though only 25 years old, Russell has been a productive player throughout her young career and has played whatever role the team has needed since her arrival in 2018.

In her first year, she came off the bench. In 2019, she stepped in as a starter when Breanna Stewart missed the season. And she returned to the bench in 2020.

Russell has the opportunity to make the greatest impact of her career this season, as the team’s current frontcourt rotation is begging for her to step up again.

A whole new season

There was little doubt that losing Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark—two of the best defenders in the league—in the offseason was going to hurt to a degree. Last season, the Storm allowed an incredible 95.9 points per 100 possessions. To start 2021, Seattle is allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the league.

Again, this is a small sample, the Aces are a formidable opponent and there is time for this number to improve. Though the 2020 Storm may have had a historically good defense and drop-off was likely, this trend is worth watching in 2021.

The bench has not kept up with the starters

It’s not that this season’s Storm are less deep than last season’s team (kind of). There is still talent here, but it likely needs more time together. For now, the early returns are rocky. Look at this chart from Basketball-Reference:

Net plus-minus takes into account a team’s points per 100 possessions with a certain player or players on the floor. Tuesday’s starters comprise the Storm’s top five in net plus-minus. We see Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd near the top, which is what you would probably expect.

Among the concerns here are Candice Dupree and Stephanie Talbot.

Dupree has moved well but still looks like she’s figuring her role out. Because Hughes wants to limit Stewart’s time guarding opposing centers, any time Dupree plays next to Stewart, she’s playing the 5. At this point in her career, it’s probably best for her to play against smaller 4s.

The Aces got off to a 7-0 start to Saturday’s game with Dupree as the starter. Talbot checked in for her at the 3:02 mark with the Storm down eight points. By the end of the quarter, the Storm had regained the lead.

On Tuesday, the Storm were within two points of the Aces in the first quarter with Ezi Magbegor starting. Dupree entered the game with 4:59 left in the quarter with the Storm trailing 14-9. Talbot subbed in for Samuelson at 3:52 with the Storm still down 17-14. The Aces began a 22-4 run from then until the 6:17 mark of the second quarter.

From 4:07 in the first quarter to the 9-minute mark of the second, the Aces held the Storm without a field goal. Seattle got as close as four points to close the third quarter but lost by 16, and it’s hard not to point to their disastrous first-half stretch.

Blaming Dupree or Talbot is unfair, especially given the circumstances. Canada, whose defense has looked good and who has historically defended well, also has poor defensive numbers so far. Yet this is two consecutive games where the Storm have seen significant slippage during Dupree and Talbot’s minutes.

You can struggle to get stops or to make shots. Doing both simultaneously is rarely conducive to winning. That’s ultimately what the Storm bench has done through two games.

How Russell helps

If Dupree is playing out of position, hopefully Russell’s return means someone else to split the center minutes with Magbegor. Opposing offenses were 1.6 points worse with Russell on the court last season. Russell went from a scoring role in 2019 to primarily crashing the boards and setting screens in 2020. She can do whatever Seattle needs.

Next to Russell, Dupree doesn’t have to worry about those things against the Liz Cambages or Dearica Hambys of the WNBA. Dupree has still shown a craftiness in getting to the rim and her midrange jumper can be a safety valve for the offense. It’s probably best if Magbegor or Russell takes those bigger assignments.

Statistically, Russell was not a great offensive player last season, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The Storm had so many scoring options that they didn’t need her to average 7.5 points on 6.0 shots per game on 52 percent shooting, like she did in 2019.

However, if she can replace some of Howard’s shots at a similar efficiency to two years ago, that would help. Having Russell and Magbegor as the team’s primary centers could tighten things up on both ends. The fact that Russell is familiar with what Hughes wants to do should help her case.

Not yet whole

While Samuelson’s departure means the Storm don’t have all their players, they are closer with the returns of Prince and Russell. Having these players back should stabilize the rotations so players are not playing out of position. With players in their proper roles, hopefully, the defensive will recover, too.

Considering the Storm have the third-best offense entering Thursday’s game, that’s not a concern. It’s the defense that has gone from, at least, near-historic to last in the league. If the Storm want to make another deep playoff run, they will need to improve. Russell may help steer them in that direction.

Written by Derek James

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