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Mercedes Russell Redshirts, Raises Lady Vols Questions

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Post players and foot injuries: two tastes that taste terrible together, because seriously foot injuries are pretty much the worst.

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Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

So remember that 2014-15 Lady Vol preview? The one where we talked about how insanely deep the post game was this year? It's not all sunshine and roses any more, as Mercedes Russell underwent surgery on her right foot and is now a likely redshirt. From the GVX piece:

"Mercedes has a history of orthopaedic problems with her feet that our sports medicine staff is working to correct," Warlick said in a school release. "Redshirting this season will allow her the opportunity to return to full health and still have three full years of eligibility with our program. We look forward to seeing Mercedes back in action next season."

...

[Russell] said the surgery she underwent this spring involved every toe of her right foot. Russell said part of the bone on the first two toes of her right foot was removed and plates were inserted. She said the ligaments of the other three toes also were addressed.

(That piece also says Russell wasn't expecting to redshirt, but when in doubt trust the coach.)

What does this mean for the Lady Vols for next year? Point blank: this is not great for the Lady Vols' post game prospects. However, it's not like their post game will struggle without Russell. Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves will now be the obvious starters, and there are worse places to be than having a top-5 WNBA draft pick and a breakout candidate as 4/5 starters. Furthermore, the Graves/Russell deep post game in 2015-16 is now guaranteed to happen, provided Russell makes a full recovery. (We'll come back to this.)

Outside of the obvious Harrison/Graves starting nods, projections are a little trickier. This roster has a few 3/4 types in Cierra Burdick, Jaime Nared, and Kortney Dunbar. Burdick is an obvious starter at this point and also an obvious candidate for time at the 4. Nared and Dunbar are wild cards; we'll get back to them shortly.

Nia Moore will also likely get significant minutes for the first time, um, ever in her college career. This isn't a knock on her; she's been effective in limited action so far, logging some nice per-40 rates (14.5 points, 13.6 boards, 4.5 blocks)(!). If Moore can provide 10-plus minutes a night and Burdick can play 10-15 in the high post, that should be enough without having to risk true freshmen in the post. (Moore will also likely get more mop-up time earlier in the season than we've seen in the past, because there's still a huge void at the top of the game.)

Looking outward: how good are Nared and Dunbar? With a healthy Russell, Holly Warlick was going to have time to work both of them in slowly during the season, allowing them to get used to the college game. Some of that buffer zone goes away with Burdick likely getting high post time. Of course, Nared/Dunbar could get those high post minutes as well. Downstream, this also likely adds a few more minutes for Alexa Middleton in small-ball lineups where only one of Harrison or Graves is in the game.

Next-next level: can we just call it right now that Graves is going to have a breakout year? Her per-minute composite numbers in 2013-14 were better than 2012-13, but her counting stats were down solely from less playing time. More playing time plus improvement plus playing opposite a likely top-5 WNBA draft pick should equal plenty of open looks and plenty of opportunities, and she was flashing 10-to-15 foot range at times last season. If that stroke gets more consistent, the swap high/low game with Harrison will be a treat to watch, plus she can do the same thing in 2015-16 with a healthy Russell.

For Russell, her future is thornier. The GVX piece mentions ongoing foot problems, and the last thing you ever want to hear for any post player is "recurring foot injury". (The second-to-last thing? Recurring knee injury.) She can still play--and hopefully the redshirt talk is at least somewhat precautionary--but this might put a dint in her WNBA career prospects. The road to great posts careers are littered with the bones of those with gimpy lower bodies.

The silver lining of Russell's redshirt is it gives her another year in the strength program; she was bossed around physically at times last season, and while one year in a strength program helps, two years helps more. She'll always have her height advantage over most posts and her shooting stroke is solid; since it's a foot injury, some of her recuperation time will be limited, but the only degradation she should see is in-game experience. In addition, it also allows for her to build up strength across her rebuilt foot, which should only help long-term.

With how deep Tennessee's rosters is this year, Russell's absence may not matter as much as you think. For Tennessee's long-term health, Russell's long-term health is a huge deal.