Basketball players are fond of saying “She’s a bucket” when portraying someone who has had a prodigious scoring performance.
In the case of Mercedes Russell, the term aptly describes the soft-spoken Storm center who seemingly scores every time she shoots.
“Y’all are sleeping on Cedes,” Jewell Loyd said in July near the midpoint of the WNBA season. “She can score as well as anyone in this league. When she’s in the paint and around the rim, you’re not stopping her. It’s a bucket. She’s a bucket. The more she’s doing that, the more it opens things up for everybody.”
Back then, Russell was at the end of a four-game stretch in which she connected on 18 of 29 shots (62%) while averaging 10 points and 7.3 rebounds.
“I am the biggest Mercedes Russell advocate,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn said at the time. “I think people need to appreciate her game and what she does.”
Fast forward 10 weeks and Russell is putting the finishing touches on a breakout season in which she’s averaging 7.0 points and 6.1 rebounds while starting 25 of 27 games.
The 26-year-old fifth-year veteran, who is the final year of a contract that pays her $70,040, is also poised for a lucrative payday in the offseason when she becomes a restricted free agent.
“I would say it’s been pretty good,” she said when asked to compare this season with her first season as a starter in 2019. “I’ve been just trying to help my team with whatever they need for us to win. I think 2019 was huge for me because I was a starter and that really just made me more comfortable and helped my game grow within the league.”
Despite being the biggest player on the roster at 6 feet 6 and 195 pounds, Russell’s contributions are often overlooked and go unnoticed.
“Mercedes has high value on this team,” Quinn said. “Sometimes stuff may not stick out on the stat sheet and this year more things are sticking out. She’s a smart player. A lot of times she’s conducting players on where to go. Now I’m hearing her voice during huddles in practices.
“We can talk about her agility at her height to get up and down the floor. And her ability to finish around the rim with both hands. She has a nice touch. But I think the intangibles is what Cedes brings and is what is overlooked in my opinion.”
Still, it’s impossible not to take notice of Russell’s 60.8 field-goal shooting percentage, which ranks second in the WNBA behind Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles (63.3%).
Fowles, who averages 16.4 points and is a WNBA MVP candidate, takes 11 shots per game while Russell averages between four to five attempts, which highlights the unique situation of someone who is the fourth scoring option on a team with three WNBA All-Stars.
On the offensive end, Russell’s No. 1 priority is to create opportunities for the Storm’s Big Three (Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird) via screens, assists or offensive rebounds.
Even on nights like last Thursday when Russell is scoring at will and connecting on 6 of 8 shots for 14 points, she’ll only play 18 minutes – her shortest outing in nine games – because Quinn opts for a small-ball lineup with Stewart at center in the second half of an 85-75 win over New York.
“Can she get more shots?” Quinn said of Russell. “Yeah. But you have to think about how teams are defending us.”
When Russell screens for Stewart, often times opponents send two defenders at Stewart, who is second in the league with a 20.7 scoring average.
The attention on the perimeter toward Stewart leaves Russell in the post against a smaller defender where she scores at a high clip or becomes a playmaker and nearly registers a triple double (10 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists) like she did during an 87-85 defeat at Chicago on Aug. 15.
“It’s a combination of (things),” Quinn said. “How teams play us, but also for her to not hunt those shots but see where she can be aggressive. A lot of times she’s a playmaker and she’s setting up other people. She’s setting screens so that Jewell can get a shot. Diving so that Stewie can get an open lane.
“Those things aren’t statistics, but those things matter in the whole scheme of what we do. Posting up is also where we can use her. With three other top scorers it becomes difficult, but … it’s having a good balance. Cedes understands her role and understands her assignment.”
On Tuesday, that assignment entails slowing down Washington Mystics center Tina Charles, who brings a league-leading 24.8 scoring average into the 7 p.m. matchup with the Storm (19-10) at Angel of the Winds Arena.
In her last visit, Charles tallied a season-high-tying 34 points and 16 rebounds to lead Washington to an 87-83 upset victory June 22.
“It’s always a challenge for me, but I’m up for it,” Russell said when asked about defending Charles. “Personally, I just think about coming into the game with a lot of energy and just being ready to make things difficult for her. Obviously, Tina has been having a pretty good year. She’s top of the league in scoring. Just making her shots difficult is really the one thing I’m trying to do.”
— Backup point guard Jordin Canada, who missed last Thursday’s game due to a right knee injury, is out for Tuesday.