There are so many child basketball prodigies that you hear about at an early age: Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Maya Moore just to name a few.
Mercedes Russell has a lot in common with them: ranked #1 in her class, immensely talented and undoubtedly set to be a game-changer on the college level. But unlike the previous names listed, Russell was somewhat under the radar and unknown coming into high school.
“Just seems like lots of times, I hear about phenoms in grade school thru the grapevine,” said Steve Mims of the Register-Guard. “I never heard of her until high school, her freshman stats were good but her team had a losing record; and her team didn’t make the playoffs so she stayed under the radar.”
However, her sophomore year, so many things changed for the better. Enter in Bill Wagner, the 6’7” former coach at North Eugene High who is well known for his ability to develop post players. Wagner was well versed in success as he won the 5A state championship with his star big man, Brian Conklin, who went on to St. Louis. That experience would prove to be beneficial with his new superstar in Russell.
“As a boys coach at North Eugene High School, he mentored a couple big guys who went on to play at the Division I level,” said Mims. “Brian Conklin was a 6-7 kid who developed into a DI recruit at the University of St. Louis. Wagner developed him and won the 2007 Class 5A state title in Oregon with Conklin leading the way.
“Wagner has developed big players in boys and girls basketball and although Russell was already developing into a star when Wagner took over at Springfield her sophomore year, I think he has helped grow her game.”
But the greatest modification for Russell came from within: as she grew, so did her game in a huge way. Russell by nature is the embodiment of humility and unselfish to a fault. However, that began to change in her second year of high school.
Instead of just taking the contact, she started initiating it; instead of passing the ball, she looked to dominate every time her hands touched the basketball.
“We started to work on her catching the ball deeper and (telling her) when you get it down low, you have to look to score more and her confidence kind of took off,” said Wagner. “Once a kid gets that confidence that they can score, the sky is the limit for them.”
With that new transformation in mindset, Russell obliterated her competition on her way to leading Springfield (27-2) to its first ever state championship.
“Not just winning a state championship as a sophomore, but being the star of the team and the state player of the year definitely boosted her confidence," said Mims. “She knew at that point that teams would not be able to stop her.
“The summer between her sophomore and junior year she made the U.S. U16 national team and I think that boosted her confidence too knowing she could play with the best in the nation.”
So with all of her newfound success, it was inevitable that every school in the country wanted her. You name it, they were interested: Baylor, every school in the Pac-12, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Connecticut, Notre Dame and any other school you can think about. But Russell, the strong young woman with a quiet resolve already had a vision of what she wanted in a school:
1. She wanted to play at a university that women’s basketball was not only paramount, but where the attendance was one of the best in the country.
3. What players were on the current roster?
4. What was the coaching staff’s vision for her and how were they going to use her?
5. And what was the history of developing players to get to the next level?
After sorting through the multitude of schools, there were only two left remaining: Louisville and Tennessee.
“Both have done a tremendous job, they both have been on her from early (on),” said Wagner. “They have exhausted a lot of resources recruiting her.”
In speaking with Wagner, one could see how his experience in helping athletes through the recruiting process has been very beneficial for Russell. His impeccable integrity has been a guiding force in helping Russell make “her decision.”
“Well I think that one of the things that we’ve wanted to make sure that is important- everyone understands that this is Mercedes’ process,” Wagner said. “This is all about her, my job is to be a guidance, to help her with any questions and to kind of make sure that she doesn’t get taken advantage of -- make sure all of the rules are followed properly.”
Over the past two weeks, Russell took official visits to get an in-depth perspective of each university. And before that, both schools made multiple trips to Oregon hoping that they could persuade her to wear their colors.
“I think her size and skills may make her the best player in college basketball by the time she is a senior,” said Mims. “You just don't see many 6-5 players with the athleticism and skill set she has. I think she will be an all-conference player right away and maybe in the mix for All-American honors as a freshman.
“She will need to adjust a bit to the college game, but her skills will carry over.”
As Russell makes her choice of where she will spend the next fours years of her life, it’s obvious that whatever school secures her commitment will be getting not only a rare talent; but a great young lady.
“When you get to know her and she opens up, you get someone that’s real genuine,” said Wagner. “She does have this kind of inner drive of exceeding. The thing that I appreciate about her is that, here’s a girl that’s the number one recruit in the nation, a lot of times kids sometimes think that they have arrived and they don’t have to continue working; or have to continue getting better.
“She’s a kid that comes everyday working to get better and her work ethic is impeccable. She treats her teammates (so well); they respect her because of how hard she works. She’s a leader by example. She’s very humble, down to earth; she’s worked hard for everything she’s gotten.
“She’s (truly) earned it.”
Whatever Russell’s decision is later on today at 2:30 PST, the handling of her recruitment - especially in the age of social media - it's notable.
“One of the other things that we stated very clearly from the beginning, this decision will be Mercedes’,” said Wagner. “There’s been a lot of things where people tried to get other people involved, tried to get her to go to other places; but at the end of the day, Mercedes had to sit down and decide for herself: What is the best program for me and what is the best fit? Not what’s the best fit for someone else or for a friend but for her.
“That’s something that we’ve tried to make sure that she looks at and asks questions and figure out -- because no one else is going to school for (Russell), no else is going to be at practice, this is her future.”
And what a bright future she has ahead of her.