Practice underway for Lady Vols

The Lady Vols have officially started practice and one of this season’s centerpieces, Mercedes Russell, is pain-free with her “new feet” and ready to lead the team. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Mercedes Russell towered over the media cameras as she spoke about the beginning of practice in the lobby of Pratt Pavilion. The 6-6 redshirt sophomore missed last season because of surgeries on both feet – not because of injury but to fix their alignment. She didn’t realize how much pain she had played in for years until she took the court post-operations.

“I knew I was feeling pain that probably wasn’t right,” said Russell, who accepted it as part of the sport. “After I got them done and no pain at all, the difference is just crazy. Really crazy, actually.

“The difference is I have no pain at all. None. I can do workouts, practice, and I have no pain during or after. Before I had surgery, I had pain all the time, just walking to class, before practice, during practice, after practice. Now, zero pain.”

Russell participated in a full practice and reported no pain afterwards. That is an excellent result for the Lady Vols.

Jordan Reynolds said “some of our teammates we’ve been joking that she’s got new feet now. She’s a lot faster.”

The junior point guard welcomes the sight of Russell on the court. They arrived in Knoxville together from Oregon, and Reynolds has an innate ability to get the ball inside to Russell.

“We’ve added a very big piece with Mercedes,” Reynolds said.

Russell will join senior forward Bashaara Graves in the paint. Graves missed the summer exhibition games when the team traveled to Italy because of a shoulder injury suffered late last season, but she has been released for drills in practice. For now, Graves is under wraps for contact.

The depth in the post will come from senior Nia Moore, a center, and combo forwards Jasmine Jones, Jaime Nared and Kortney Dunbar.

“I think Kortney, Jaime and Jasmine are really versatile,” Russell said. “Putting them at the four spot is great because they can go inside-out, and they can open up a lot of things for us. They really help our depth in the post, and they are really good additions at the four.”

Jones, a redshirt junior forward, is back after missing nearly the entire season because of a concussion.

“I think you can tell through workouts and pickup that we are both extremely happy to be playing again,” Russell said.

Sitting and watching was an agonizing process for Russell last season.

“I don’t think there are really any words that I can use to describe it,” she said. “It was really tough for me. It was the first time I have had to sit out that long from basketball. It was hard watching and not being to play. Then, practicing and not being able to play. It was tough.”

Russell returned in the latter part of the season to limited practice to test her “new feet.” Early reports were excellent and that continued all summer and into the fall.

“She is getting up and down the floor with ease,” Head Coach Holly Warlick said.

Russell used her time on the sidelines to study the game – and see what the coaches see.

“From the sideline, there is definitely a different perspective as a coach,” Russell said. “Watching that whole year it gave me a different perspective because there are a lot of things we don’t see playing on the court that the coaches see. Sitting out gave me that perspective.”

Warlick will welcome the sight of Russell in uniform. Tennessee has long been an inside-out team, and Russell, an agile post, will be a primary part of the offense.

“Mercedes is an intelligent basketball player,” Warlick said. “She knows the game. Her watching just upped her knowledge that much more.”

Reynolds and redshirt junior Andraya Carter, who already has a bachelor’s degree and is working on a master’s degree, are expected to lead at the guard position. The coaches would be delighted to see Graves and Russell take that role to the paint.

“I think posts can lead,” Russell said. “Leaders are generated off people who want to lead. I think having a lot of experience – Bashaara has been four years – she can definitely lead us in a big, positive way. Especially since this is her last year, she has to go out with a bang.”

Russell has shown a willingness to step into that position, too.

“I like her intensity,” Warlick said. “She has become more vocal.”

So can a second-year player lead a very talented but relatively young team?

“Can I? Yes, I definitely think I can,” Russell said.

The process started over the summer when the team practiced and then traveled to Italy in August for three exhibition games.

“I think this past summer was great for everyone,” Russell said. “Everyone came in with the mindset that we need to get better, and we need to do better.”

Tennessee will have the services this season of Diamond DeShields, the national freshman of the year in 2013-14. DeShields sat out a transfer year and addressed a lower leg injury that has limited her for the past year and caused pain in high school and college at North Carolina. She remains day-to-day, and the plan is to ease DeShields back slowly in practice.

“High energy and scoring,” Reynolds said when asked about the “Diamond effect.”

“Diamond is a great player, and everyone knows it,” Reynolds said.

Tennessee also has added two freshmen in guards Te’a Cooper and MeMe Jackson. Both are making steady progress as they adjust to the pace, tempo and expectations of college workouts, especially strength and conditioning.

“I definitely remember those days,” Russell said. “The first day of conditioning was crazy. You can definitely tell that they are in that transition mode struggling through things that we don’t struggle through anymore. But that’s what it is as a freshman. It’s a whole different level going high school to college.

“There is a huge difference between the two physically, mentally, emotionally, all of that. But I think they are adjusting very well. When practice starts, they probably are going to have a little bit of culture shock.”

The Lady Vols have now had two practice sessions and the first week is usually when the shock sets in as freshmen are not accustomed to lengthy practices several days a week, along with the other obligations of student-athletes.

Tennessee intends to run this season, so the newcomers have to get in the slipstream.

“We are already a pretty up-tempo team,” Reynolds said. “We’ll run fast breaks all day if we can.”

Head Coach Emeritus Pat Summitt attended the opening practice session. Three players that she recruited remain on the team in Carter, Graves and Jones.

“It’s always great when a legend is in the building,” Russell said. “It was just great to see her at practice.”

The expectations for the 2015-16 are sky-high, and a common theme has emerged – play together.

“We’ve got to become one team now,” Reynolds said.

“Everyone has the same goals, but we have to go out and play together and compete at the highest level,” Russell said.

On paper, Warlick and her staff know this is a very talented team.

“Now, what we do with that talent is yet to be determined," Warlick said.“Are they willing to work? Are they willing to listen? How hard are they going to play? Are they going to play all-out or are they just going to play to get by? How are they going to get along?

“I think all those factors play in to talent. Can that talent jell together and be one as a team? That's up to our coaches to get them, and for them, to understand and try to work toward.”

Mercedes Russell

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