Mercedes Russell is a player about whom coaches truly can’t say enough nice things. In and of itself, that’s not unusual. What’s rare is that the praise isn’t limited to her own coach.
“Other coaches, even referees, they’re always coming to us and complimenting her about how she never complains,” says Bill Wagner, Russell’s coach at Springfield (OR) High. “She’s really easy to root for. She’s so humble and quiet for a kid who has accomplished as much as she has.”
Coach isn’t needlessly bragging, either; Russell has accomplished a ton. With a complete skill set to complement her 6-5 frame, she’s a two-time Oregon state player of the year who recently claimed Gatorade National POY honors after averaging 25, 12 and 6 blocks for Springfield High. She won a pair of state chips and played on a pair of gold medal-winning USA Basketball squads. As an encore, she’s taking her game and résumé to Tennessee this fall.
The leap from Springfield (right next door to Eugene) to Knoxville might seem an unlikely one, but for Russell, it makes perfect sense. “As a kid, I grew up watching Pat Summitt, and Candace Parker is my favorite player,” Russell says. “All my life I’ve lived on the West Coast, and I just wanted to try something new. I got to meet Coach Summitt, but it was really Coach [Holly] Warlick and the new staff that recruited me, and I have a great relationship with them.”
You can hardly blame the Lady Vols for being enamored with Russell. She came up as a perimeter player in middle school and even ran the point, giving her ample opportunity to develop her ballhandling and penetration. But when she hit 6-3 around her freshman year—and then kept growing—and didn’t lose her range or ball skills, it became clear Russell was something special. “I played in a tournament the summer before my sophomore year, with a lot of college coaches watching,” she says, “and I got a lot of letters after that. I guess I got their attention.”
Russell has had no trouble adjusting to her height, adding an array of mid-range and post moves and “a little jump shot,” and polishing her face-up game, which is where she feels most comfortable. She cites do-anything players like Parker and Kobe Bryant as primary influences, and that sense of being well-rounded is reflected by the fact that even last season Wagner would occasionally assign his All-American post player to run the point. “That way,” the coach says, “it was harder for teams to double- and triple-team her.”
There’s also a bit of a Tim Duncan vibe to Russell’s persona and production. A naturally quiet, reserved young woman, she says, “I don’t really like to talk much, but on the court, I just love communicating and helping people out.” That, and her undeniable consistency—Wagner says there were only two games in three seasons at Springfield in which Russell didn’t post a double-double—made her an obvious choice as the consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class.
What’s next? More of the same, as Russell looks to lead the Lady Vols back to that championship tier. “I know I need to get stronger, and I know I’m still improving,” she says. “I feel like I have everything to work on.”