Mercedes Russell’s rookie season got off to an inauspicious start. The 2018 second-round pick didn’t make it out of training camp for the New York Liberty. The Liberty signed her back but then released her again after two games to make room for Kia Vaughn.
But Russell’s year ended with a WNBA championship, so she had the last laugh.
Mercedes Russell By the Numbers
- 1.6 PPG
- 1.4 RPG
- 0.1 BPG
- .484 FG%
- 6.7 OREB%
- 21.7 DREB%
- 14.0 TRB%
- 1.5 BLK%
- 90.1 ORtg
- 96.6 DRtg
- 0.1 WS
Crashing the Boards
Rebounding was Russell’s biggest area of strength in 2018, which isn’t all that surprising based on her senior year at Tennessee. During the 2017-18 season, she ranked in the top 11th percentile in total rebounding rate (14.3 percent), per Her Hoops Stats. She was also in the top 10 percent in offensive rebounding rate (11.1 percent) and top 16 percent in defensive rebounding rate (17.2 percent).
For the most part, that translated immediately to the WNBA. While Russell’s per-game numbers aren’t impressive, she averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds and 7.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to Basketball Reference. She also finished fourth on the team in total rebounding rate (14.0 percent).
By virtue of her 6’6″ frame, Russell has a clear advantage on the glass. Her rebounding prowess simply isn’t solely a result of her height, though. She displayed good spatial awareness to get into position for box outs, and she was aggressive when pulling down rebounds.
The more Russell is tested against the best players in the world, the better she will become with the finer details of rebounding. The raw talent is there. Russell has the potential to be a dominant rebounder when her footwork and positioning catch up.
During the 2017 season, Seattle ranked 11th in total rebounding rate (47.5 percent). To address the problem, the Storm signed Courtney Paris, one of the better rebounders in WNBA history, and acquired Natasha Howard. The team then climbed to fourth in total rebounding rate (51.0 percent) in 2018.
Paris turned 31 in September and is entering the final year of her contract. The Storm might lose Crystal Langhorne, a proven rebounder who’s a free agent this offseason, as well.
Russell can carve out a role on this team as a glass-cleaning backup big who also takes some of the rebounding burden off Breanna Stewart when they share the floor.
Laying the Groundwork?
Russell played the fewest minutes of any Storm player this season (101), and nearly a fifth of her overall total (18.8 percent) came in the team’s regular-season finale against the Dallas Wings. At that point, the Storm were locked into the top overall seed, so head coach Dan Hughes mostly leaned on the reserves. Russell nearly posted a double-double in that game, finishing with eight points and nine rebounds.
With the scarcity of available roster spots, the WNBA can be a ruthless league for younger players. Just look at how the Storm have cycled through some of their draft picks. Teana Muldrow, Seattle’s third-rounder in 2018, was gone after four games. Alexis Peterson and Lanay Montgomery, second- and third-round picks in 2017, were waived prior to last year.
Both Kayla Thornton and Jessica Breland offer an example of how perseverance can pay off.
Thornton went undrafted in 2015 and signed a training camp contract with the Washington Mystics. The Mystics waived her after 10 games, and she was out of the WNBA entirely in 2016. She signed another training camp contract with the Dallas Wings in 2017 and parlayed a productive first year with Dallas into a regular starting role in 2018.
Breland struggled through her rookie year in 2011 while dealing with the lingering effects from her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Breland sat out the 2012 season and returned in 2013, becoming a steady contributor for the Indiana Fever. Fast forward to the present, and she has an All-Star appearance and an All-WNBA Defensive first team honor on her resume.
By signing with Wisla CanPack Krakow, Russell will face a relatively high level of competition during her first year in Europe. Wisla exited the EuroLeague in the qualifying stage, but they’re still competing in the EuroCup, pitting Russell against plenty of talented continental opponents.
Russell has the added benefit of playing alongside Jordin Canada, allowing them to forge a stronger on-court connection. They could be particularly effective in the pick and roll.
Because she had such a minimal role on the Storm, Russell’s rookie season was essentially a redshirt year. With the experience she gained both in the WNBA and playing in Europe, Russell should be in a good position for 2019. The question is whether she’ll get the opportunity to play in Seattle.
Russell is the hardest player to forecast on Seattle’s roster. If the Storm don’t re-sign Langhorne, then Russell could potentially take her spot in the rotation. However, the team could just as easily spend its first-round draft pick on a frontcourt player to serve as Langhorne’s replacement. The Storm will almost certainly keep Russell on the training camp roster. Her future beyond that will likely hinge on whatever Seattle does in the 2019 draft.