Tennessee center Mercedes Russell finally gets to play with her Lady Vols teammates again this week as she continues her comeback from foot surgeries.
But the Lady Vols must wait to play in a game situation alongside North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields.
Tennessee leaves Wednesday for a three-game exhibition tour of Italy in which DeShields and senior forward Bashaara Graves aren’t expected to play, but both will make the trip.
Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said she’s resting both players for precautionary reasons as Graves recovers from “tweaks in her shoulder” and DeShields deals with shin splints.
DeShields’ health issues also caused the former Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year to play only one game for the U.S. team in last month’s World University Games at Gwangju, South Korea.
“We could play both of them, but I just don’t want to push the issue,” said Warlick, who expects both to be ready for the start of the season.
The tour represents one more step in Russell’s comeback after the 6-foot-6 center missed the entire 2014-15 season. Russell said she feels healthy and believes she took a major step forward at the World University Games, where she averaged 13 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds to help the United States win a gold medal. Warlick was an assistant coach on the U.S. team.
“At first, I was a little, I would say, shaky and kind of nervous since I hadn’t played in a while,” Russell said. “Once I got used to it and I got my feet wet again, I really enjoyed it. It was fun being back on the court.”
Russell was rated as the nation’s top overall prospect in her class by multiple services when she signed with Tennessee in November 2012, but she hasn’t been healthy throughout her college career. Russell said her feet actually started bothering her in high school.
She averaged 6.3 points and 5 rebounds per game in 2013-14 while dealing with foot injuries. Russell underwent surgeries on both her feet after the season and redshirted in 2014-15 to recover.
“It was very frustrating (as a freshman) to know I could give some effort, but it wasn’t my best,” Russell said. “At times, that kind of just got to my head, and I was (thinking), ‘You know, I can probably do better, but my feet are holding me back.’ ”
Russell said she’s now 100 percent. She acknowledged playing at closer to 50-60 percent her freshman season.
“She’s getting up and down the floor a lot quicker,” Warlick said. “She’s not laboring getting down the floor. She’s a little bit more fluid. Secondly, I think she’s stronger. She can take the physical hit a lot more because she’s in better condition and her body’s physically stronger.
“And I think the year out sitting gave her a little bit more knowledge of the game from a coach’s perspective. She’s always been a highly intelligent player with a basketball mind, but I think sitting out and seeing things from a different angle helped her.”
The Lady Vols are scheduled to play exhibition games in Montecchio Maggiore on Friday, in Ponte Buggianese on Sunday and in Rome on Aug. 11.
The games will be played according to international rules, with a wider lane, a longer 3-point distance and a 24-second clock. The tour also gives Tennessee the opportunity to adapt to the new NCAA rule instituting four 10-minute quarters rather than two 20-minute halves.
But the biggest benefit may be giving Russell a chance to get accustomed to playing alongside her teammates in a competitive situation before the start of the season.
“I feel like I’m ready to go,” Russell said. “I’m ready for the season to start right now.”