Lady Vols' Russell meets with media for first time

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 1, 2013: Center Mercedes Russell #21 of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers during basketball practice for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- In this week’s @LadyVol_Hoops Report, freshman Mercedes Russell met with the media for her first time Tuesday at Pratt Pavilion before practice. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood followed Russell’s interview to talk about the players he coaches at the post position.

Lockwood likes what he has seen from his talented group. He even compared the unit to a two-time national championship duo he coached just a few years ago. Lockwood has been with the Lady Vols for 10 years.

Russell continues to make adjustments to college life and living in a different state, and she is focusing on working hard daily to get better in order to help her team.

Freshman Mercedes Russell is one of only six players in Lady Vol history to stand taller than six-foot-five and one of three to measure 6-foot-6. Before starting her career in Knoxville, Russell was ranked number one coming out of high school by ESPNU/HoopGurlz and Women’s Basketball Insider. She was also named the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the year in 2013.

Russell hasn’t let all of the attention affect her approach to the game and knows what matters now is working hard to be the best college player she can be. She said the coaches and her teammates at Tennessee have helped her make the transition and approach a new set of goals.

“It’s been great and everyone on the team is very welcoming and helps me with whatever I need,” Russell said. ““I don’t pay attention to a lot of the (attention), I just go out and play hard. The biggest adjustment has just been the speed and the physical part of the game. It’s been pretty tough, but I’m getting used to it.”

But Russell hasn’t had to complete the transition from Springfield, Ore., alone. Also in Tennessee’s 2013
recruiting class was fellow Oregon native, Jordan Reynolds.

Both Reynolds and Russell say it’s great to have the other at Tennessee, because it’s like a little bit of home with them. The duo played together in AAU Basketball in Oregon before committing to Tennessee.

It isn’t just Mercedes noticing a difference in her life recently. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood has also noticed a big change in the post player since her arrival on campus.

“It’s great to have her on board,” Lockwood said. “When you have someone who is very talented and has a great feel for the game, it’s a plus. We had a solid post group coming back, but you add her to the mix now, and I think it just really gives us great depth and versatility at that position.

“We expect Mercedes to contribute and play a vital role on this team,” he continued. “We don’t set numbers, but all of that is in process and will be decided as we go along. We fully expect Mercedes to play a very pivotal role and contribute significantly.”

Russell says her contribution is just to help the team get to its final goal… Nashville.

“For the team, we’re just going to work hard, and for myself, I just want to get better every day,” she said.

Lockwood also commented on Russell’s impressive basketball IQ and her knowledge and common sense about the game. He said that having a basketball student like Russell is a big addition to the Lady Vols.

“Just the person Mercedes is, she’s very classy and has a lot of common sense about her,” Lockwood said. “It’s very natural for a freshman to feel that and she is the only freshman in the post group. She’s quickly adapting and adjusting. The coaching staff has been very positive and affirming with her. We tell her that we need her to be her and bring her talents.”

Lockwood continued listing the freshman’s talents, including versatility, scoring ability, shooting ability, passing prowess and basketball knowledge.

Despite her success before Tennessee, Russell is still improving, most specifically on running and learning from her teammates.

“Bashaara (Graves) and Izzy (Harrison) help a lot,” Russell said. “They teach me everything since I’m just a freshman, like moves and plays, and it’s been great.

“I think I’ve improved most running, just getting out of the post and sealing off my man to get open.”

Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike were an unstoppable duo during the 2005-08 seasons, which included two national titles, three SEC tournament championships and one regular season SEC championship.

Dean Lockwood says he isn’t “quite ready” to compare the 2013-14 post players to Parker and Anosike, but there is potential already in the trio of Isabelle Harrison, Bashaara Graves and Mercedes Russell, with sophomore Nia Moore also ready to make a name for herself.

“I think it could be one of the best post groups we’ve had) in terms of depth from top to bottom,” Lockwood said. “When you look at Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike, those are two players hard to beat and they complimented each other so well. They were so physically skilled, physically tough and mentally tough.

“To have all of that together is so rare and so hard to find,” Lockwood continued. “I’m not ready to go there quite yet, but I will say that in terms of total depth and versatility, this group could approach that. They are deep and multi-dimensionally talented.”

Among the group of talented post players, Bashaara Graves was named 2013 SEC Freshman of the year, as well as being named to the preseason All-SEC team by the media this week.

With a group of posts with the physicality and potential to be similar to a past group of Lady Vols, Russell isn’t opposed to the comparison.

Parker’s playing was one of the reasons why Russell “fell in love” with Tennessee and eventually chose the Big Orange for her college program.

Between Parker and Russell, there are many similarities that Lockwood pointed out. With four years ahead of playing time for Russell, there is so much room for the newcomer to grow and develop into kind of dominant player she was in high school.

“I can’t think of anyone that has come in as highly ranked as Mercedes was since Candace,” Lockwood said.

With the depth of the players in the post and the talent from the guards, Tennessee is preseason ranked first in the SEC by the media, but with a big smile, Lockwood says the ranking doesn’t change the outlook of the season.

“We see the ranking and we smile, but it doesn’t affect our day-to-day preparation a whole lot,” he said. “We appreciate that people see the talent, and we like the positive expectation that we have.

“This could be a great team, and we don’t shy away from it at all,” Lockwood continued. “But you have to prove yourself game by game. Last year, we were picked fourth and fifth preseason and we finished first, so what does that mean? Not a whole lot, because you still have to go through a 16-game grueling conference schedule, which I think is as good as any league in the country.”

The Lady Vols’ SEC play opens up January 2 against LSU with the added excitement of Parker’s jersey retirement at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Until then, the team has two full months of in-season games and practices to build up for the SEC and show off what the Tennessee post players can do. Lockwood says he is looking forward to getting started.

“It’s fun. And it’s exciting.”

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