The rigors of a condensed schedule were felt throughout the WNBA last season.
For Seattle Storm center Mercedes Russell, the “wall” came toward the end of July or early August.
“One day I woke up — I had a good night’s sleep — and I’m like, ‘Sheesh, I’m still exhausted,’” she said. “I guess just the wear and tear of the travel and the games, every few days, it really takes a toll on your body.”
Of course, Russell had an extra hurdle to overcome: joining a new team in the season’s opening weeks. Drafted by the New York Liberty, she was cut on the last day and picked up by the Storm shortly thereafter.
“It was tough,” she said. “ … I had to learn everything really fast, but I wouldn’t use that as an excuse.”
In any case, if 2018 was a season of transition for the Tennessee grad, 2019 may just be Russell’s coming out party.
With forward Breanna Stewart’s season-ending injury in the EuroLeague championship game in late April, opportunity abounds in the post for Seattle. And while there’s no replacing the reigning MVP, Russell says she’s ready to make the most of whatever chance she gets.
“They may be big, they may be small, but just maximizing any second or minute I have to help the team do whatever they need me to do,” she said.
Thus far, Russell has done just that, culminating with her first career WNBA start last week against Minnesota. She started again a few days later against Chicago and scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds. The 6-6 Oregon native also made some crucial defensive stops with her long reach.
Russell’s journey back to the starting five capped what has been a whirlwind year-plus for the 23-year-old, since the Liberty chose her in the second round of last year’s draft.
Despite a standout career in Knoxville — graduating as just the fifth in program history to score 1,500 points and grab 1,000 rebounds in their career — she found herself on the outside looking in at the end of training camp.
Veteran Kia Vaughn’s late arrival provided a brief reprieve, with Russell brought back for a two-game stint in the Big Apple. But within a week of being cut for the second time, she was in Seattle.
With Stewart and Natasha Howard firmly entrenched in the starting lineup, and both Crystal Langhorne and Courtney Paris seeing significant minutes off the bench, minutes were few and far between in Russell’s rookie year.
In those moments, she did show flashes of her potential, including a near double-double (eight points, nine rebounds) in 19 minutes against Dallas in the team’s regular-season finale.
The WNBA offseason provided a different opportunity for Russell, playing alongside teammate Jordin Canada in Poland.
While leading Wisła CANPACK Kraków in rebounding and averaging more than 12 points per game, she gained valuable experience with the Storm’s point guard heir apparent. Though they had known each other from stints with USA Basketball, their friendship blossomed more overseas.
“We were literally together every day,” she said. “ … Over the eight months I felt like we grew physically, emotionally, and just really became closer.”
There was far less uncertainty when Russell returned stateside, having signed a multi-year contract on the first day of free agency to remain with Seattle.
That, of course, came well before the team learned it would be without Stewart, whose dominating play led the Storm to its third WNBA Championship last year.
In Stewart’s absence, Russell has been among those to step into bigger roles, playing at least 20 minutes in each of the last four games (a mark she didn’t hit once in her rookie year). Included in that stretch were back-to-back seven-rebound performances off the bench against Minnesota and Chicago.
Seattle will need more of that effort on the glass, with the 3-3 team ranked tenth in the WNBA in rebounding so far.
Though there’s no escaping the absence of Stewart or All-Star point guard Sue Bird, who is out indefinitely after knee surgery two weeks ago, Russell says she’s interested to see what the Storm can accomplish, regardless.
“We have a pretty special team,” she said. “ … We’re going to come out and give all that we can, and I’m excited to see what we do.”