Putting together the Lady Vols post puzzle
Tennessee plans to be an up-tempo team this season, and the Lady Vols have post players who can run. The Lady Vols have three true posts in centers Mercedes Russell and Nia Moore and power forward Bashaara Graves. Tennessee also has three hybrid forwards in Kortney Dunbar, Jasmine Jones and Jaime Nared. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood discussed all six players with InsideTennessee. In part one of two parts, Lockwood outlines what the Lady Vols need from the true posts. Bashaara Graves Graves has played in 106 games, starting 98 of them, so she is Tennessee’s most-experienced post this season. So what does Graves need to bring her senior year? “Consistency and stability,” Lockwood said and then repeated it. “Consistency and stability. She has to be a standard bearer, a standard setter for the post position group and for the team in terms of toughness, composure, comportment, discipline, attention to detail, all of the things you expect from a center. We are relying on her.” Graves has shown that she can be a dominant player inside, especially on the glass. “There are games when B looked like an all-league player,” Lockwood said. “And then were games where she looked like a solid player but not an all-league player. What we need from her is that consistency.” Graves wasn’t voted by the media to the preseason All-SEC Team, and her inconsistency likely factored in the decision. She can use this season to prove pundits wrong. The Lady Vols have added an inside scorer with the return of Russell and will get perimeter points from newcomer Diamond DeShields, so Tennessee isn’t asking Graves to shoulder the scoring load. Lockwood said the coaches want “that effort level, that intensity level, the relentless” that Graves showed every game as a freshman. Her first year she came out of the gates so strong, and she was hungry,” Lockwood said. “I would like to see now the progression of that and the consistency of that. The two things I go back to with her are consistency and stability.” Graves was held out of contact throughout the summer and into fall workouts. She is being eased into full court contact situations now. The benefit is Graves used that time to work on her shooting. “She is multidimensional,” Lockwood said. “Her face-up game is better than it’s ever been. She still has grit and toughness to her. She’s a tremendous rebounder. We need her to do those things for us.” Mercedes Russell Graves should have a clearer path to do those things with the presence of the 6-6 Russell. To mix sports metaphors, she moves the goal posts on the post game. “There is no question,” Lockwood said. “When you have a player like Mercedes, and you’re the four, you’re going to be better because she is going to draw attention. “She is an effective scorer. She’s an excellent passer. She has a high basketball IQ. She is very tuned in to where double teams are coming from and where people are moving to, so she’s got the ability to pick it apart if you spend too much time and effort with her defensively. “Whoever is on the floor with Mercedes – it might be Jasmine, Jaime or Kortney – at a given time will only benefit from that.” Russell played in all 35 games as a freshman and started five of them. She sat out last season after surgery on both feet to correct an alignment issue. The redshirt sophomore is now pain-free and drawing raves in practice. “The biggest thing we are excited for her is that now she’s got two healthy feet,” Lockwood said. “She was such a trouper that she didn’t complain. At the end of the season, you could see it. It looked like somebody had put glass in the bottom of her shoes at the end of her freshman year.” Russell played in the three exhibition games in Italy. She last played a college game March 30, 2014, in the Sweet 16. “She’s got to be given time to get her sea legs under her,” Lockwood. Lockwood, however, isn’t pumping the brakes on expectations. “Mercedes can be an outstanding player,” he said. I have high expectations for Mercedes, very high. Mercedes is a very skilled player. She is exactly the same player and person that we recruited, that we loved on sight, that we believed in.” The Lady Vols need Russell to make an impact on both ends. “For her, just come out and be a presence,” Lockwood said. “She is a 6-6 skilled player. She’s stronger than she’s ever been. She needs to be someone that is a presence and defenses are going to be forced to do something. “If she’s left one on one, more often than not she’s going to be very effective. And if you’re doubling, she will get other people great shots. “And defensively, we expect her to be a great rebounder, to be a presence in the middle.” Russell blocked 40 shots as a freshman. That number could double this season – Kelley Cain holds the single-season record at 113 in 2009-10 – but Lockwood noted her presence in the paint has an added effect. “She will block her share of shots, but we want her to be a difference-maker and people will think twice about going in there,” Lockwood said. “She is going to change some shots. We are not going to put the whole load on her back, but she needs to be a presence on both ends of the court. “We need to know Mercedes Russell is out on that floor, and I think she’s going to give us that.” Nia Moore Moore will be expected to provide effective backup at the post position. Moore has shown capability – she played in 26 games last season and started nine – but her personality is such that she sometimes will fade into the background. Tennessee needs a sense of urgency at all times from the senior. “Nia has had as good of a training camp so far as she’s had in her previous three,” Lockwood said. “That is what you want from a senior. One of the things we have emphasized with her is continuing to simplify her game and play to her strengths. She’s in better shape, she’s running well, and she’s stronger. She played very well in Italy. “We’re really excited that we can insert her. She is so mobile. She can get us transition baskets. She has the ability to change shots. I go back to consistency – someone that we can count on for consistent productivity when she’s on the floor. “She is a very good midrange shooter. She can get her own rebound. She’s got a nice jump hook and a turn-around jumper. She has to play to her strengths, and that will help her consistency.” In part two, Lockwood discusses the three hybrid posts and this season’s offensive philosophy.
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