September 3, 2023
How Seattle’s Mercedes Russell is finding her form again after missing most of 2022
Quinn: 'It's crucial for our success for her to be at her best'
SEATTLE — Smart. That’s the word you hear over and over when Seattle Storm players and coaches talk about Mercedes Russell.
Russell may not be a primary scorer or garner many headlines, but the 6’6 center has been vital to the Storm’s success over her six years in the WNBA. Perhaps more importantly, she will continue to be vital to their success in the future.
Russell was drafted No. 22 in 2018 by the New York Liberty but played in only two games before she was waived. The Storm snapped her up and she has been in Seattle ever since, winning championships in 2018 and 2020.
Russell’s best years statistically were 2019 and 2021, as she averaged over seven points and six rebounds per game in both years. But there was one major difference between the two seasons: Her field goal percentage in 2021 was almost 10 percentage points higher than in 2019, at an impressive 61.7%.
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The franchise hoped she would continue to build on that growth and success in 2022, but things did not go as planned. She missed nearly all of the 2022 season due to a non-basketball injury, and she admitted it was incredibly difficult. She was dealing with “a lot of things that a lot of us have never heard of before,” she told The Next. Lots of doctors and hospital staff were simply trying to figure out what was wrong.
Eventually, Russell had surgery “to treat recurrent low-pressure headaches,” the team announced on July 21. She would miss the rest of the season and have a long recovery to work through.
While she was thankful that the surgery relieved a lot of her symptoms, the Oregon native said she spent months just trying to get back to her “normal self.” Luckily, the self-proclaimed “huge family person” had her No. 1 fans nearby.
“It was a tough recovery time, but I had my family: my mom, my aunties, my uncles. Literally everybody was there through every step with me,” Russell said. “So I’m very thankful for them and to be able to have their support through that was tremendous, because without them, whoooo, I would’ve struggled. Struggled tremendously. And just to have them there … helped me in every single way possible.”
A post-All-Star break surge
Entering the 2023 season, Russell was healthy and excited to finally play again. But she struggled to refind her form and consistency, particularly in the first half of the season.
Before the All-Star break, Russell averaged 3.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 43.1% from the floor. Her playing time was inconsistent, but she averaged 16.5 minutes per game.
Since then, though, she has played more minutes (19.9 per game), scored more points (5.6 per game) and shot more efficiently (55.0%).
Both Russell and the team are very aware of this difference. “The first half of the season, I was kind of struggling just to find that rhythm … I’ve definitely picked it up and played a lot better this second half, and I honestly think it was just time that I needed. … Practice and a game are two different things for an athlete,” Russell said.
In early August, Storm head coach Noelle Quinn told reporters that, while she thought confidence was a factor in Russell’s improvement, it had more to do with preparation. “She has been super focused on her extra workouts, what she’s doing in pre-practice, what she’s doing [during] practice, her extra conditioning, her weight room stuff,” Quinn said.
That focus is very purposeful. Russell knew she needed those extra things to find her “rhythm again, just getting into the flow of basketball.”
Russell’s strong performances have had a huge impact on the Storm. “Without a doubt, it’s crucial for our success for her to be at her best,” Quinn said on Aug. 27.
A few minutes later, Storm guard Sami Whitcomb expressed the same sentiment, telling reporters, “This second half of the season, where we’ve been better, it’s no coincidence it’s coincided with Cedes obviously being more productive, getting more minutes, looking more like herself and I think just finding more comfort out on the floor.”
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‘Not just a one-dimensional player’
What makes Russell such a key player for the Storm? The simple answer is her basketball IQ combined with her size.
“There are things that she does at her size that not a lot of players can do,” Quinn said.
“When she puts her mind and her body to it, she’s able to alter shots. She’s able to stay in front. She’s able to use her mind to defend and take different angles. And offensively, a lot of times, especially for this year [when we’re] having to play point guard by committee, I put the ball in her hands and have her bring it up because she’s an excellent passer. She makes reads. She just understands the game.”
One might think a 6’6 center would be more inclined to look for her own shot, but Russell is a pass-first player. Longtime teammate Jewell Loyd jokingly calls Russell a point guard because of her mentality and ability to make reads.
“She thrives off of everyone else’s success. It’s never about her, which is why we try to get her to get more selfish, but she’s gonna pass it out when she needs to just because she wants everyone around her to do well,” Loyd told reporters.
Loyd added, “She’s vital to what we do here and what we have been able to do for the past couple years. She’s a very special player, and she’s one of my favorite players to play with.”
Watch some of Russell’s assists and you will see why she is a favorite of the WNBA’s leading scorer. Tons of Russell’s assists are handoffs to Loyd paired with a strong screen, giving the shooting guard space to get her shot off. Loyd often assists her post player right back.
Fellow post player Ezi Magbegor similarly loves playing with Russell. “She knows and reads the game so well,” Magbegor told reporters on Aug. 13. “… I love and I think we all love just having her on the floor, being able to facilitate, being able to just be such a big post presence as well … She’s not just a one-dimensional player.”
Another huge asset is Russell’s size inside as one of the taller post players in the league. Quinn and Whitcomb praised Russell for her inside presence, especially rebounding and defending. Seattle has one of the tallest frontcourts in the league when it plays the 6’4 Magbegor next to Russell, and that provides some daunting rim protection.
While the Storm have mainly used Russell in a facilitating capacity this year, she has the ability to score with high efficiency. She is still trying to balance her pass-first mentality with looking for her own shot. It is something she is constantly working on. Every game, and even moments within a game, require different solutions.
Beyond her efficiency, Russell’s teammates want her to be more selfish because it helps the Storm’s offense overall. “The more that she looks at the basket and is a threat really, really helps us and opens it up,” Whitcomb said.
In a loss to the Chicago Sky on Aug. 27, Russell played probably her most selfish quarter of the season and scored 11 straight points. She then didn’t take another shot until the fourth quarter and finished the game with a season-high 13 points.
It wasn’t until she looked at the final box score that Russell realized how little she shot after her 11-point quarter. “I think I was just so into the flow of the game and just trying to keep our lead while getting stops defensively,” Russell said. She added, only half-jokingly, “When you’re out there, it’s a lot to think about. We have so many things going on.”
Russell is focusing on staying “aggressive no matter the situation, no matter the flow of the game.” That’s not just on offense, either. “Whether it be guarding, blocking shots, boxing out, there’s always, I think, a moment to be active in a game,” she said.
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Russell helps Seattle win games
Russell’s ability to read the game produces terrific decision-making. For example, in a win against the Phoenix Mercury on Aug. 13, Russell pump fakes and lets a defender fly by. Then she floats her shot high off the glass to avoid Phoenix’s tremendous shot-blocker, Brittney Griner.
Russell scored eight points in that game, helping the Storm complete a season sweep of the Mercury. But even more important than her scoring were her game-high 10 rebounds and the defensive shift she put in to help hold Griner to 12 points.
Similarly, in a win over the Dallas Wings on June 17, Russell recorded her only double-double of the season so far with 12 points and 10 rebounds. She added a season-high five assists.
These are easy-to-see examples of Russell impacting her team and being crucial to their wins. But the full effect she has, both defensively and with her facilitating, doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet.
A building block for Seattle
It is no secret that the Storm are going through a rebuild after the departure of 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart in free agency and legendary point guard Sue Bird‘s retirement. The 2023 season has been rough for the Storm, who have only won 10 games so far. Despite the rough results, the team is as close as ever.
“I think each other’s company has just really helped us overcome maybe these tough losses,” Russell said, “because there were a lot of games that we thought we might have had a chance to win and we just slipped … Sticking together as our team has done so far, I’m really appreciative for that because it could really turn into some shit … We’re uplifting each other, keeping the positivity because we’ve been through so many ups and downs this season that we really need that.”
In a tough year like this, it’s crucial to grow and stay positive, and Russell contributes to that culture. Her coach and teammates call her chill, fun, funny and a great teammate whom everyone loves.
Beloved by her teammates and crucial to the Storm’s success, Russell is, and should continue to be, a part of Seattle’s rebuild. She is in a unique position as a veteran who has won championships but also someone who hasn’t hit her ceiling. In fact, she is just getting back to the level her team knows she can perform at every night.
As Quinn put it, “She’s shown what she can do and who she can be in this league, and we just have to get it out of her consistently.”
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