May 10, 2024 

Seattle Storm notebook: Mercedes Russell returns renewed, Nika Mühl comes prepared

The six-year veteran and the rookie will both be impactful reserves for the Storm

SEATTLE — The Seattle Storm’s free agency additions have received the majority of attention heading into the 2024 season. However, contributions from bench players will be crucial for the Storm to compete for a WNBA championship. In particular, six-year veteran center Mercedes Russell and rookie point guard Nika Mühl could play big roles.

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While Skylar Diggins-Smith is expected to play extensive minutes as the starting point guard, she is still returning to full fitness after giving birth to her second child. Seattle will need someone to take some of the load off her. Ezi Magbegor will be the starting center and can play significant minutes, but she will also need a respite at times. Enter Mühl and Russell.

After the team’s second preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday, star guard Jewell Loyd stressed the importance of players coming off the bench and having no drop-off.

“That’s been a thing for us is making sure everyone knows that we need everybody,” she told reporters. “They’re here for a reason, and everyone has a skill and talent that we need. They understand that; they believe that. So when they come and play, they know that there’s a level that we need to get at. Everyone needs to be there.”

Mühl comes to the WNBA ready to contribute, having played for a UConn program that has produced many professionals. The 28-year-old Russell returns to Seattle with renewed confidence after spending the offseason playing in Australia and winning the WNBL alongside Storm legend Lauren Jackson.

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Mercedes Russell is renewed

In 2023, Russell was returning from a condition that caused recurring headaches and required surgery, forcing her to miss nearly all of the 2022 season. She played an important role for the rebuilding Storm in 2023 but struggled to find her form until late in the season.

It was a purposeful choice not to push herself too fast and to give herself grace as she returned. But a lack of playing time made it hard to regain her rhythm, so getting offseason game reps was a priority.

She got those reps with the WNBL’s Southside Flyers, a team she had played for previously. She averaged 14.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.0 blocks in 34.1 minutes per game. Russell also led the league in 2-pointers made per game (6.4) and field goal percentage (56.5%).

The Flyers finished second during the regular season but were victorious in the Cygnett WNBL Finals. Russell’s last-second fadeaway won Game 2 and forced a decisive Game 3, and she was named Grand Final MVP after her team defeated the Perth Lynx in Game 3, 115-81.

Southside Flyers players surround Russell, patting her on the back and pushing her forward to accept the WNBL Grand Final series MVP award. Russell shrinks into herself while smiling widely.
Mercedes Russell of the Southside Flyers is cheered by her team as she is named the Most Valuable Player of the WNBL Grand Final at Melbourne Sports Centre Parkville in Melbourne, Australia, on March 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Kelly Defina/Getty Images; provided by WNBL)

In training camp, Russell is feeling good physically and mentally. Playing for six months in Australia helped build her confidence and get her flow back. She was already a confident person who believed in herself, but “it was really just about finding that rhythm and just getting more games under me,” Russell told The Next.

Russell also got to be teammates with Jackson, the 42-year-old Australia and Storm legend who came out of retirement and returned from injury in the past few years. Jackson’s on-court prowess helped Seattle win its first two championships, but Russell said it was particularly special getting to know her as more than a basketball player. The duo shared lots of stories about their mutual Storm teammate Sue Bird, and Russell got to know Jackson’s family.

Russell also took some basketball-related lessons away from the all-time great.

“It’s just professionalism at this point,” Russell said. “How you carry yourself, the food you eat, it really just matters. All the little things go into your everyday basis as a basketball player.”

Even with her years of experience in the WNBA, Russell is learning as much as possible and continuing to improve.

“Being a sponge as a basketball player, it’s important,” she said, “because even at my age, I can just continue to learn little, small things, even big things.”

Russell will come off the bench for the Storm, barring injuries. But she is fully bought into her role because she knows the team needs everyone to contribute.

“I’m just excited. I mean, I’ll come in and play my part, do whatever I need to do to help the team win, whether that’s rebounding, defending, scoring, whatever I need to do,” Russell said. “Just come in and be a presence [on] both ends of the floor … and bring energy, no matter what my role is.”

At the end of the day, Russell added, “we’re all here to come together and do something great.”

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Nika Mühl’s potential

Mühl is one of the additions who Russell thinks will help the Storm do something great, alongside stars Nneka Ogwumike and Diggins-Smith. Joking a bit about her own age, Russell added, “I think [Mühl is] such a young talent and [is] just learning from all of us, I guess, older players at this point.”

Seattle management and fan base were both thrilled when the Storm drafted Mühl No. 14 overall in April. There are many ways her game fits well in Seattle.

For example, on a team filled with superstars who will take most of the shots, Mühl is low usage and high efficiency. According to CBB Analytics, in her final season at UConn, she averaged around six shots per game, with half coming from behind the arc, and had an impressive true shooting percentage of 58.9%. Her 40.8% shooting from 3-point range is important in head coach Noelle Quinn’s system, which emphasizes spacing the floor.

Mühl also played with great players in college, most recently Paige Bueckers. They demanded a lot of the ball, like Loyd, Ogwumike and Magbegor will. Mühl wants and knows how to get the ball to those kinds of players.

The 5’11 guard averaged more turnovers than is ideal, but she still had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.43, which ranked in the 98th percentile nationally. The turnovers rarely resulted from a lack of control or discipline; sometimes the idea just didn’t work out. However, that creativity can be honed.

UConn guard Nika Mühl looks to make a pass from the top of the key.
UConn senior guard Nika Mühl handles the ball against Iowa in the Final Four at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 5, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

You never know how a rookie’s skill will translate to the professional level, but Mühl’s first week with the team has justified the excitement. She will probably take time to adjust fully, but in her first preseason game on Tuesday, she looked unfazed. (She had missed the Storm’s first preseason game, which was played in Canada, due to visa issues.)

In 19 minutes on Tuesday, Mühl recorded six points, three rebounds, two assists and two turnovers. She hit a pull-up jumper and a 3-pointer, only missing one of her shot attempts. Her performance was nothing mind-blowing, but it was impressive and promising.

One assist to Russell was a great example of her leading the second unit:

The fans absolutely loved her, and Quinn noticed her poise.

“The thing that is very evident is that she is a natural leader,” Quinn told reporters afterward. “She uses her voice a lot. Defensively, she was solid. I think that that matters when you’re at the point guard position — not just what you do offensively, but what you do on the defensive end. She commands her teammates to do whatever is necessary, whatever I need or whatever she needs, and I just thought that she was solid.”

Whenever the whistle blows, Mühl is the first player jumping off the bench to high-five her teammates or gather them in a huddle. She is always encouraging and communicating. Mühl is far more vocal than the average rookie, and that is crucial for a point guard.

The other key aspect of Mühl’s game is her intensity on the defensive end, which was on full display Tuesday. She guarded her assignment for 94 feet on most defensive possessions, and she was particularly hyped after forcing Phoenix’s Air Hearn into a traveling violation.

Loyd praised her rookie teammate for always asking questions and bringing intensity.

“Everyone’s competing, and that’s something that we, I think, missed in the last couple years is having a full competition every single drill, every single possession,” Loyd said. “And [Mühl] brings that for sure.”

Related reading: 2024 WNBA season preview: Seattle Storm

Mentally prepared

On April 24, UConn posted a video in which Mühl bid an emotional farewell to her college head coach, Geno Auriemma. It was a sweet moment that showcased the special relationship between the “grumpy grandpa” and the Storm rookie. She thought the camera crew would only take a few pictures, and she said afterward that the resulting video was “super raw” emotionally.

In the video, Mühl worried that she might not make the roster. Auriemma responded that she would know exactly what she needed to do after the first day of camp. In hindsight, Mühl feels he was completely right.

“It is a lot [of] information for the first day, of course,” Mühl told The Next, “but just being a sponge and being attentive and listening — I feel like that’s what I was supposed to do for the beginning here. And I feel like I did it and I kind of know what I’m supposed to do.”

There is still a question of whether Mühl will make the final roster, though it seems likely. Still, Mühl is not taking anything as a given — she hasn’t even sent Auriemma the Storm’s schedule.

“I feel like my mind is trying to just stay present, stay two feet on the ground,” she said. “I’m just trying to make the team, as everybody is here.”

With her younger sister Hana also playing college basketball in the United States — previously at Ball State and next season at Manhattan — Mühl has family support in the country. The rest of her family and friends are rooting for her from Croatia, and their support is felt, too. They may or may not be able to see her play in person, but they will do whatever they need to watch her on video live out a dream.

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‘Go away, pressure’

The expectations and stage of the WNBA mean Mühl is under a lot of pressure. But that isn’t new to her. She was guarding Caitlin Clark, the consensus national player of the year and now a rookie with the Indiana Fever, in the Final Four in April. She played four years for one of the best women’s basketball programs in the nation. She doesn’t know exactly how she handles the pressure, but she knows she can if she goes with the flow.

“It’s different kind of pressures, but at the end of the day, it is pressure. Just realize, hey, the pressure’s there, but then you just kind of [say], ‘Go away, pressure,’” Mühl said, jokingly waving it away.

Adjusting to the WNBA has been overwhelming: She moved across the country and even further from home, and she is filling a particularly difficult position on the court for a rookie to play. But she is soaking it all in. 

“I know that once I step on the court, once you show me a couple things, [the] first time I’m gonna get it. I think about the game a lot. I’m gonna go home right now. I’m gonna watch the film and I’m gonna learn all the actions. So I feel like that stuff is not overwhelming for me,” Mühl said after the opening day of training camp.

She also credited the veterans, particularly Diggins-Smith, for helping lead her in the right direction.

“They’re great leaders,” she said. “And that’s all I need.”

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Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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