WNBA fans might have noticed the slew of player transactions this week as teams made financially motivated roster moves before Wednesday’s deadline when contracts become fully guaranteed.
Since Sunday, 13 players have been waived, including Storm rookie Kiana Williams.
“It’s tough because it was a business decision more than anything she did or did not do,” coach Noelle Quinn said.
Not so long ago, the Storm picked up Mercedes Russell, who was a salary-cap casualty released by the New York Liberty two games after the start of the 2018 season.
At the time, the 6-foot-6 rookie center was considered a project who logged time at the end of blowouts while averaging just 1.7 points, 1.4 rebounds and 5.6 minutes.
Three years later, Russell is making the case that she’s deserving of a lucrative long-term contract with a breakout season during the final year of a contract that pays her $70,040.
“I am the biggest Mercedes Russell advocate,” Quinn said. “I think what she does for us and for our team is undervalued. Not by me or our staff or us, but by others. Sometimes her stats don’t jump out, but she’s solid defensively. She’s smart offensively. She’s an excellent teammate. She moves the ball. She understands basketball, and I think people need to appreciate her game and what she does more honestly.”
Quinn’s praise followed Russell’s 12-point, 11-rebound performance during Sunday’s 95-92 defeat at Las Vegas in which she outplayed Liz Cambage and held the four-time WNBA All-Star to just nine points and seven rebounds.
“Seeing a double-double from her, it shows me how much more that she can give for us,” Quinn said. “We know that we have a Big Three, but Mercedes is a big part of what we do. … She is absolutely important, a vital piece to this thing.”
The Storm’s championship hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of its All-Stars Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird.
And then there’s Russell, who ranks fourth on the team in scoring (6.6 points per game), second in rebounds (6.4) and first in field-goal percentage (53.5%).
“Mercedes is a great player,” guard Jordin Canada said. “When she’s locked, she’s just really hard to guard. So to have her on our team is a blessing. She’s a great screener, she can rebound, she can guard without having people needing to double or help, so she just does it all for us.”
Russell has bounced back from a disappointing 2020 season in which she averaged just 3.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 13.8 minutes while conceding responsibilities to newcomer Ezi Magbegor.
Still, the Storm envisioned moving Russell into the starting lineup alongside Stewart on the front line once she returned from her overseas commitments with the Turkish team Galatasaray.
“Cedes’ size in the middle is something that we haven’t had here in a long time,” said Dan Hughes, the Storm head coach who retired May 30. “So that was the plan to get her up to speed with everything we’re doing. … We’re so long and big when Cedes is in there and she’s kind of invaluable in that way.”
Russell’s importance is apparent when the Storm goes against the WNBA’s five 2021 All-Star centers, including Washington’s Tina Charles, Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, Phoenix’s Brittney Griner, Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles and Cambage.
However, Quinn believes the next step in Russell’s development is taking advantage of mismatches in the paint.
“We talk about her progression,” Quin said. “When we get into those situations where now she’s able to be a dominant force. … Giving her those opportunities and giving her the confidence to go dominant when you don’t have to deal with a big and defensively trying to contain her matchup.”
In theory, Friday’s 7 p.m. pairing between the Storm (12-4), which has dropped two straight games, and Atlanta (6-9) is seemingly a favorable matchup for Russell who has to contend with Elizabeth Williams.
In their two prior meetings this season — both Seattle wins — Williams, a 6-foot-3 post player, averaged 7.0 points and 7.0 rebounds while Russell averaged 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds.
“With each new level there is an adjustment period and if you think about being a professional, a lot of times when you come into the league we all can’t be Breanna Stewart,” Quinn said. “Just trusting the process of her development. That’s sometimes what it takes with a player like Cedes. The natural development process that sometimes isn’t allotted in our league because there is only a 144 players and 12 teams.
“So when you have the opportunity to get a player and actually take time in the development and see what they can do on a day-to-day basis and have a vision for that, that’s what you see in Mercedes. We saw how smart she was. Obviously, you can’t teach height. There’s not a lot of players at her size, but also the skill set that she has.”
— The Storm signed forward Ciera Burdick to a seven-day contract to fill the void on the roster created when the team released Williams on Monday. Burdick, the No. 14 overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft, has appeared in 49 games with five teams during her five-year career.