Noelle Quinn was thrilled to have Mercedes Russell finally make her long-awaited season debut Friday, but the Storm coach cautioned the return of their starting center won’t solve the litany of problems plaguing Seattle.
“We can’t expect her or anyone else to put on her Superwoman cape and save us,” Quinn said. “We have to do the work. We have to play better. … With that being said, it’s good having her back.
“Cedes has been a big part of what we’ve built here over the years. She’s helped us win two championships. But like I was saying, we can’t expect to come in and be dominant right off the bat. That would be nice and I certainly hope she can do that, but realistically we have to give her some time to get back into the swing of things.”
In her first game of the season, Russell played just 12 minutes off the bench and finished with more fouls (three) and turnovers (three) than points (two) and rebounds (two) during a 68-51 loss against the Dallas Wings on Friday.
Admittedly, it was a rough start for the fifth-year veteran who missed training camp and the previous eight games due to an undisclosed non-basketball injury that was initially reported by the team April 17.
Russell declined to give any specifics about the injury other than to say: “Being a basketball player, I’ve been through injuries before. It’s about being patient and taking the time to really know your body. Making sure you come back healthy and just being positive through the whole experience.”
Russell returned to the court last week and participated in just two Storm practices before making her debut. Quinn plans to slowly reintegrate her into the game plan as a reserve behind veteran forward Jantel Lavender, who started the past three games while center Ezi Magbegor is in the WNBA’s health and safety protocols.
Initially, trainers put Russell on a 12 to 15 minute playing restriction, but Quinn hopes to extend her time on the court.
“I was looking at the time limit and thinking can we get seven more minutes out of her?” Quinn said, smiling. “As we get her conditioning up and her game reps up, she’s going to help tremendously, especially rebounding. That’s 8 to 12 points offensively.”
Last year, Russell had a breakout season while averaging 7.3 points and reaching career highs in rebounding (6.1), field-goal shooting percentage (61.7%) and assists (1.6).
After missing out on free-agent target Stefanie Dolson, who chose New York over Seattle, the Storm secured the 26-year-old Russell, a restricted free agent, with a three-year deal worth $480,000 on Feb. 1.
“I’m where I’m supposed to be,” said Russell, a former Tennessee Vols standout who joined the Storm in 2018 as a rookie free agent after being released by New York, which selected her in the second round of the 2018 WNBA draft. “Being in my fifth year, I think I made a place for myself in this league, which is hard. It’s difficult. This year, the cuts around the league were tremendous. We say we’re a league of 144, but the real number is probably 130 something because not many people are able to roster 12.
“So just making a place for myself in this league is important just because of that level of difficulty of staying in the league and staying on a roster. I’m thankful. And Seattle is an amazing organization from top to bottom.”
While filling in for Russell, Magbegor, a lanky 6-foot-4 and 176-pound center, has shown the potential to be a future All-Star who can score 21 points, grab 11 rebounds, block seven shots and collect two steals.
However, the Storm desperately need Russell, who has the size (6-6 and 195 pounds) and versatile skill set to match up inside against top low-post players.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve been calling her Mercedes Embiid because she has the potential to really control a game,” said guard Jewell Loyd, who likened Russell to Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid. “She has a point-guard mentality. She understands the game of basketball so well. She has an ability to pass and see the floor.
“Her talent level is there. She’s gotten better every year. She’s versatile. She’s healthy now and in good shape. She’s working her way back from her injury. She’s another point guard on the floor with Sue (Bird).”
Russell offers perspective on Seattle’s shaky 5-4 record ahead of Sunday’s big 3 p.m. showdown against the Connecticut Sky, who have the second-best record in the WNBA at 8-3.
“We’ve had games with and without Stewie (Breanna Stewart) and games with and without Sue,” Russell said. “So, it’s been a roller coaster for us so far. We haven’t played one game with our full 11-man roster. I don’t even think we’ve practiced together with our 11-man roster, which is crazy because we’re a month into the season now.
“I think we’re in a good position honestly. It’s been steady throughout the league. Everybody has won. Everybody has lost. No team has really separated from the rest. We just need time to play with each other.”
— Perennial WNBA All-Star guard Bird returned to practice Saturday and is expected to start Sunday. She has missed the past three games while in the league’s health and safety protocols.
— Magbegor is out of protocols and is cleared to play Sunday.