A look at her numbers proves Mercedes Russell is among the top centers in the WNBA
By MARK MOSCHETTI
The ticking scoreboard clock still shows about half an hour before game time.
It’s right about then that Mercedes Russell starts to get a feeling of what kind of night it’s going to be.
Will the Seattle Storm center fill up the hoop with her sharp-shooting accuracy?
Or will the ball bounce every which except into it and through it?
“Usually when you get in warm-ups, you start to feel how your body is feeling, and your mind,” Russell said. “Once you’re in a game, the flow kind of gets you going. You get some shots up, and you figure out if you’re going to have an off night or an on night.
“It’s just kind of a feel thing.”
Since the WNBA season resumed in mid-August following the Olympics, that “feel thing” has been feelin’ mighty fine for the 6-foot-6 Russell.
Simply put, she has become one of the deadliest shooters on any WNBA court.
Beginning with a home-and-home set against the Phoenix Mercury to wrap up the pre-Olympics portion of the schedule, Russell has shot an eye-popping 70 percent from the field, hitting 49 of her last 70 attempts. Add her 3-of-3 night in Seattle’s 79-57 Commissioner’s Cup win against the Connecticut Sun on Aug. 12 (which doesn’t count toward her official season stats), and that percentage rises to 71.2.
For the season as a whole, she is hitting 61.7 percent, draining 92-of-149. That includes a 7-of-9 performance against Brittney Griner in Friday’s 94-85 victory against Phoenix to wrap up the regular season anc clinch a first-round bye in the upcoming WNBA playoffs.
With numbers like that, no wonder the “feel thing” feels so good.
“I just try to be as efficient as I can for my team,” Russell said. “Obviously, they need me to be efficient on both ends of the floor. Me finishing on the offensive end at a high percentage is good for us.
“So as long as it’s good for the team, it’s good for me.”
THE RIGHT FIT FOR A STAR-STUDDED TEAM
On a squad with the Big 3 Olympic gold medal trio of Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Breanna Stewart, Russell’s soft-spoken, team-first approach certainly strikes a chord with head coach Noelle Quinn.
She acknowledges that taking a few more shots certainly could be good for Russell individually and for the Storm as a whole. (Indeed, even with her high shooting percentage, Russell doesn’t qualify for a spot among the league leaders because her 85 field goals made is short of the minimum of 100 required.)
But at the same time, Quinn sees things from the 26-year-old native of Springfield, Oregon, that others might not see.
“She’s a smart player, and a lot of times, she’s conducting players on where to go (on the court),” Quinn said. “I’m hearing her voice more in the huddle during practices. Obviously, we can talk about her skillset, her agility at her height to get up and down the floor, finish around the rim with both hands, and her nice touch.
“The intangibles is what Cedes brings. And sometimes, it’s what’s overlooked, in my opinion.”
GOING COAST TO COAST
A graduate of Tennessee who became just the sixth player in that vaunted program’s history to score 1,500 points and collect 1,000 rebounds, Russell has been bringing those intangibles to Seattle for four seasons. Drafted in the second round by New York in 2018, she played just two games in a Liberty uniform before being waived.
Just four days later, former Storm coach Dan Hughes signed her, and Russell has been in a Seattle uniform ever since.
“It has been great – super-nice to be close to my family,” Russell said. “I went to college far away from home, so opportunities (for them to watch me in person) were slim. But now, it’s close, so they come to see me a lot.”
What they and other Storm fans have seen is Russell playing a role that has taken a 180-degree turn from year to year. Her 22 games after arriving in Seattle in 2018 were all off the bench. The following season, with Stewart out for the season recovering from knee surgery, Russell started 30 of 34 games.
Last summer, playing inside the WNBA “Wubble” in Florida, Russell was back in a reserve role for the 22 regular-season contests and all eight playoff games.
This year, after helping Galatasaray S.K. to a runner-up finish in the Turkish Women’s Basketball League and missing the first two games of the Storm’s season in May, Russell came off the bench for the following two games, on the road at Minnesota and Detroit. She got the start at home on May 25 against Connecticut and has had that spot ever since.
“In 2019, I was a starter when Sue and Stewie were out,” she said. “This year, I think it was a lot easier for me to come back from overseas and transition to that (starting role) because of 2019. And my teammates help me every single day to make that transition easier.”
Those teammates get plenty of help from Russell, too.
“She’s setting up other people—setting screens so Jewell can get a shot, diving so Stewie can get an open lane,” Quinn said. “Those things aren’t statistics. But those things matter in the whole scheme of what we do.”
BATTLING THE BIGS
Another thing that matters is keeping opposing post players from taking command of a game – and the league is full of such players who can indeed take command.
“BG is definitely one of the toughest. Luckily, she hasn’t dunked on me,” Russell said of playing against Phoenix star Griner. “She’s a tough one. A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage are a tough power duo on the same team (Las Vegas). And Sylvia Fowles (of Minnesota) is a load every night.”
Added Quinn, “We’re asking her to do a lot on that end.”
Speaking of dunks, Russell has never made one – or even tried one. Same with 3-pointers. In response to a reporter’s question, she said she’d be more likely to attempt a trey than a dunk.
“I can barely dunk with no defense,” she said with a laugh. “But dunk in a game? I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
As they open defense of their fourth WNBA title in the upcoming playoffs, Russell and the Storm know they’ll have to get through at least one single-elimination game, possibly two.
“Any team is going to be tough to play against, especially in the knockout round,” she said. “They’re going to bring whatever they need to win, and obviously, we’re going to do the same.
For the Seattle Storm, that means bringing sharp-shooting center Mercedes Russell . . .
. . . and hope that her “feel thing” continues to keep feelin’ so good.