Few players in college basketball are off to more sensational beginnings than Rhode Island guard Fatts Russell. The junior boasts numbers so gaudy they look fabricated.
- 21.4 points per game (14th nationally; T-1st in the Atlantic 10)
- 3.33 steals per game (2nd nationally; 2nd in the Atlantic 10)
- 5.2 assists per game (5th in the Atlantic 10)
- 86.3% free throw shooting (6th in the Atlantic 10)
- 35.9 minutes per game (4th in the Atlantic 10)
… and all while shooting 47.1% from the field and 41.3% from 3-point range, meteoric percentage rises of 14% and 19%, respectively, from a year ago.
That’s the statistical profile. The performance metrics through nine games. Numbers compelling on their face to box-score skimmers that make for great water cooler ammo.
But Russell’s production – staggering as it may be – is symptomatic of, and secondary to, the real story.
“We’re watching a true transformation, the evolution of a young man,” Rhode Island head coach David Cox stated after Russell shredded Providence last week.
This evolution is taking Russell from talented contributor to a charismatic and dynamic leader.
It didn’t happen overnight. Nor without some pain, often a catalyst for introspection and change.
Last season, through grade-progression alone Russell went from playing the care-free freshman, energy guy role to expected nightly producer as a sophomore seven months later.
It was sobering. There were failures, frustration, and character-testing times as he searched for fit and comfort with his own game and its place within David Cox’s system.
He plugged away on the fly. Dealt with the critics. Began making incremental changes.
As the year wore on Russell gained a bit of traction both in performance and mindset. Shot selection improved and, more importantly, he continued to maintain his defensive intensity whether he was making shots or not. Beginning with a Friday night February Davidson game, Fatts rattled off 20 steals over his last five regular season contests — nearly 40% of his 2018-19 total – after recording just 14 in the previous 14 games. It proved a foreshadowing marker of his emotional growth.
The Rams rallied to win six straight late season match-ups before losing in the Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals. Russell would end 2018-19 wiser, tested, and intact. Talks with his coach persisted… and were plentiful.
“We had a lot of conversations about maturing on and off the court that he needed to do… and leadership characteristics that he needed to display,” Cox told me last week.
Russell took that to heart. And mind.
He headed home at the end of the school year for a few recharge weeks before returning for summer sessions. You’ve likely heard about the hundreds of shots he hoisted in the gym, his commitment to not being outworked, and the personal dedication to his skill development. That’s true.
Ask anyone around the program about Russell 2.0, however, and they’ll tell you he unlocked something far more significant back in Philly. What that inner “it” is, only Russell knows. And that’s fine.
He came back laser-focused, positive and more mature… leading by actions, body language, and subtle competitive intangibles. His teammates observed. They embraced. Russell connected. And his motivational influence grew — long before the Rams played their first game this season against Long Island. So too did team cohesion.
That was no more evident than last Friday against Providence. The Friars are a talented team. They’re deep. Multiple PC players arrived with multiple stars next to their names. But they sorely lack cohesion.
Not Russell and the Rams. Whether falling behind to Nicholls State before racing past them late, battling back down double-digits against West Virginia in Morgantown, or weathering Friar runs and putting them away emphatically, this Rhode Island team is showing resolve. Russell is in the middle of all of it. After all, his journey over the past 18 months is laden with it.
Any person or team can “have a day.” Excellence, individual and collective, is achieved by each player learning, understanding, and committing to raising his floor — and helping others raise theirs.
The 5-10, 165 pound Russell is enjoying himself and making his teammates better. His infectious attitude, spirited smile, and energy-inducing play are rattling the Ryan Center. And whatever the “it” may be that’s fueling him… it looks like it’s here to stay.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44