What a wild two weeks for Mercedes Russell.
In the span of 10 days, she played in the Turkey’s Women’s Basketball Super League championship game, flew 20 hours from Istanbul, Turkey, to the West Coast, made a quick stop home in Springfield, Oregon, to visit with family members, quarantined six days in Seattle and finally made her long-awaited season debut with the Storm on Thursday night.
“It’s been crazy,” said Russell, who played in Turkey with Storm teammate Epiphanny Prince. “We just literally got back a few days ago. We’re probably still a little bit jet-lagged honestly.
“Sadly, we missed the first couple of games obviously. Now that we’re back, we’re just trying to get adjusted to the time.”
Prince’s return was slightly delayed and she’s expected to be activated Saturday when the Storm (2-1) wraps up its two-game road trip at Dallas (1-0).
Russell played sparingly in Thursday’s 90-78 comeback win at Minnesota. Despite logging just eight minutes, she played a pivotal role in the late rally while tallying five rebounds and finishing with a +19 plus/minus ratio, which was the second highest in the game.
The 6-foot-6, 195-pound center also scored a clutch layup in the final minutes for her only basket and helped the Storm slow down Lynx center Sylvia Fowles, who torched them early offensively and finished with 20 points.
Russell paired with Jordin Canada (16 points and three assists) and Candice Dupree (10 points, four rebounds and three assists) as Seattle’s reserves outplayed their Minnesota counterparts and delivered significant contributions to help the Storm rally back from a 19-point deficit.
“I personally think the depth of this team could end up being our biggest weapon,” Storm point guard Sue Bird said. “And that’s saying a lot considering we have (Breanna Stewart) and Jewell (Loyd). But our depth could end up playing a significant role for our team and with that, we got to get comfortable.”
Yeah, about that.
Russell doesn’t think it’ll take her long to get re-acclimated to a backup role with the Storm following a winter and spring when she starred with the Turkish team Galatasaray.
During 29 games overseas, Russell averaged 10.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 50.4% from the field.
The previous year, Russell led her Polish team with 6.7 rebounds per game and averaged 12.2 points while shooting 60.6% on field goals in 27 games.
“Overseas is a little bit different mindset of who you are as a player,” Loyd said.
Russell, who has played her entire four-year WNBA career with the Storm since joining as a free agent in 2018, has predominantly been a backup post player.
When Stewart missed the 2019 season due to an Achilles injury, Russell started 30 games and had a breakout year while averaging 7.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 25.6 minutes.
Last year, Russell’s production dipped dramatically following Stewart’s return and the unexpected emergence of rookie center Ezi Magbegor.
“I’m comfortable in any role,” said Russell, who averaged 3.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 13.8 minutes in 2020. “Honestly, I just want to do what’s best for the team. Starting or coming off the bench, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just going to come in and hopefully produce energy for the team.”
It’s no secret the Storm is grooming Magbegor, a promising 21-year-old Australian, for a larger role in the future considering her potential, diverse skillset and a team-friendly contract that gives them control of her rights for the next three years.
Still, the 26-year-old Russell, who is a restricted free agent after the season, figures prominently in the Storm’s immediate plans against teams with dominant post players.
“Those are the games when you really appreciate someone like Cedes and you wish she was up to speed with us,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “She gives us a size that we otherwise don’t have anywhere else to matchup with some of those players like Liz (Cambage) and Syl.”
Russell relied on what Hughes called ‘corporate knowledge’ of the Storm, which allowed her to make a positive impact Thursday despite not practicing with the team.
“A lot of players are used to this grind because it’s kind of been our lives ever since we’ve been in the W,” Loyd said. “Unfortunately, we’re accustomed to this chaotic lifestyle.”
The 27-year-old Loyd, a seven-year WNBA veteran, played in Turkey, China, South Korea and Spain during her first five years as a professional basketball player, but she has no plans of returning overseas.
“I don’t miss playing overseas at all actually,” Loyd said. “It’s an experience. You go over there and challenge yourself and you’re constantly playing. But for me and how I learn and grow, it doesn’t always fit my lifestyle.”
Russell was one of 104 WNBA players who played overseas in the offseason. The average WNBA salary is $120,648, but for playing year round can be financially appealing for players like Russell who make $70,040 this season.
However, starting in 2024 the league will begin enforcing a prioritization policy in which players with more than three years of WNBA experience will be required to play the entire WNBA season.
If they fail to report to their WNBA team because they’re playing in another league, they will be deemed ineligible for the entire WNBA season and forfeit their WNBA salary.
Players with under three years of WNBA experience will be exempt from the prioritization policy and the league will grant exemptions for lower-earning players or anyone participating with their national teams in international competitions.
This season, several teams including the Storm, have dealt with makeshift rosters as players arrive late due to playing overseas.
“That’s just the reality of this year,” Hughes said. “As people get back to us, we’re working them in and what you would like to see is a little bit of chemistry being formed. Then the hope is that you form an identity, get people comfortable in their roles and start to peak heading into the playoffs.
“So these first few weeks, plenty of teams — and we’re no different — are working things out as we get everybody in here. I’ll be happy once we have our full team and we have some time together.”