Nobody does the little things better than Penn women’s basketball guard Ashley Russell.
The senior has carved a career out of making small plays that don't show up on the stat sheet. Whether it's sacrificing her body to dive for a loose ball, setting a screen to get her teammates an open shot, or mentoring younger, less experienced players, Russell’s willingness to do the dirty work is one of the many reasons the Massachusetts native was elected as a captain for the 2018-2019 season.
“I put the team’s success way farther ahead than my individual success,” Russell said. “As long as the team wins, I don’t really care about my stat line. … It would be nice to have that, but as long as the team comes out with a win, I’m happy.”
Last year, she enjoyed her best season statistically, starting 29 of the 30 games she played in — only coming off the bench on senior night — while putting up career-highs in minutes (24.3), points (7.5), rebounds (3.7), and assists (1.7) per game. Still, with last year's historically great senior class, which featured two All-Ivy players in forward Michelle Nwokedi and guard Anna Ross in addition to three-year starter Lauren Whitlatch, Russell primarily played a complementary role.
Now, Russell, the only captain projected to be in the starting lineup, will be forced to take on additional leadership responsibilities in her final season.
“I was kind of behind them in the leadership role, so moving into senior year, I knew I had to step out of that shell rather than being able to sit behind seniors,” she said.
However, Russell does not find it necessary to be the loudest person in the gym.
“I’ve kinda been just trying to lead by example on the court so far.”
With four rotation players graduating from last season, more underclassmen will be forced to step up earlier in the year compared to prior years.
One of the players Russell has taken under her wing is freshman guard Mia Lakstigala, whom coach Mike McLaughlin indicated is likely to see extended minutes for a rookie.
“Just because of how practices have been working out, I’ve been on her team a lot,” Russell said. “I’ve been able to talk her through things like certain movements on screens or where she should go on certain plays, and where she can look to move off the ball to get open threes. She’s been doing a really good job.”
On the court, Russell will be tasked not only with guarding the opposing team's best perimeter threat, but also with playing multiple positions within the offense.
In her first three years on campus, Russell has played predominantly shooting guard and occasionally small forward. In the offseason, Russell worked on her ball handling and shooting to prepare for increased point guard responsibilities.
With the graduation of the program's all-time leader in assists in Ross, that position could be filled by a number of different players. Russell is likely to spend much of her time in her usual positions, but will also absorb some of Ross' responsibilities. Having an experienced senior as a ball-handling guard should help the Quakers settle in.
“With me having a lot of experience playing in games, as well as [sophomore center] Eleah [Parker] from last year, I think it’d be beneficial for us to set the tone in the beginning of the year,” Russell said. “If we're getting caught up and have a lot of turnovers in a row and we don’t have a fast break, to [tell the team], ‘hey, let's slow down here and run a play,’ I think that will help us moving forward to control the pace of the game rather than being controlled.”
From becoming the predominant senior leader, to taking freshmen under her wing, to learning a new position, Penn women’s basketball’s gritty leader will have her hands full this season.
But if her first three years are any indication of how this year will turn out, Russell will do it all with a smile as long as it helps the team win games.
For more about the upcoming season, check out the project page for the 2018-2019 Penn basketball preview.