Rhode Island star guard Fatts Russell recently announced that he has withdrawn from the NBA Draft and will return to Kingston for his senior season. He did it in a two-word press release — a style fitting for a player like him.
Now that the likely All-Atlantic 10 selection is back, Russell will attempt to carry the Rams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since his freshman season. If Russell can match or improve upon his surreal junior season per-game output (18.8 points, 4.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.9 steals), Rhode Island may be considered a dark horse in the Atlantic 10 behind Richmond and Saint Louis.
“In his first 20 games last season, it was something I don’t think I had ever seen before,” said URI head coach Dave Cox, who has witnessed firsthand his fair share of talent through the years at Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and Rhode Island.
But Russell, who averaged 35 minutes a game and took far too many beatings in frequent forays to the basket, played on fumes by the tail end of the season. His efficiency numbers dipped by the end of February and Russell failed to produce an ORtg of higher than 96 in any of URI’s final five games.
Russell’s break-out season was even more significant considering that he was one of only two eligible true guards on URI’s entire roster and had to play injured and exhausted all too often. This season, Russell will have the luxury of playing alongside Jeremy Sheppard, a sharp-shooting and lightning-quick East Carolina transfer, as well as highly touted incoming freshman guards Ishmael Leggett and Tres Berry.
A look back
After Russell captured the nation’s attention by picking Trae Young’s pocket and nailing a three in his face during a first round NCAA Tournament win versus Oklahoma, his sophomore year was an adjustment.
Russell was playing for a new coach (David Cox) on a team that lost five seniors to graduation. Even though Rhode Island was bringing in a much-heralded recruiting class, they were young and Russell shouldered unrealistic expectations. Remember, he was breaking into the starting lineup for the first time.
Despite struggling from the perimeter, shooting just 22 percent from three and 34 percent overall, Russell provided a glimpse at what Rhody could expect his junior year when, in his last conference game of the season, he torched Saint Joseph’s for 41 points.
Russell, fueled by a dramatically improved perimeter game, took the A-10 by storm this past season. His three-point shooting leapt 13 percentage points (36%) and his field goal percentage jumped to nearly 39 percent — quite high for a volume scorer. He also needs just 39 more steals to become Rhode Island’s all-time leader.
A triple threat
ESPN and CBS color analyst Michael O’Donnell described Russell as a three-level player, or a triple threat.
O’Donnell says Fatts can hurt you from deep with his patented between-the-legs, step-back three-point shot and also has the ability to finish among bigger defenders.
“His on-ball defense where he slides and digs on every possession is relentless,” O’Donnell added.
Only a few months ago, Russell’s return to Rhode Island was uncertain after he entered the NBA Draft. The prospect of getting paid to play in the NBA’s G-League or overseas further rattled a tense Rhody fan base.
“The important thing is that I wanted him and his family to know that they deserve this opportunity and a chance to test these waters, get feedback and make their best decision,” Cox said.
After what felt like an interminable wait to learn Russell’s URI fate, he posted his decision to play his final season in Kingston on Instagram. After his announcement, there was a palpable and collective sigh of relief from Ram nation.
In the end, it was Russell’s deep love for his teammates, coaching staff, school and the Ocean State that played the deciding factors in his return.
“I want the fans to know that the love goes both ways,” Russell said. “Even when I was struggling my sophomore season, they welcomed me with open arms.”
What to expect this year
Russell is in striking distance of becoming the second leading scorer in Rhode Island history, behind only Carlton “Silk” Owens. He’ll need 700 points this season to get there. Russell is also in position to be named as one of only four Rhode Island All-Americans in school history. And if he is named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, it will be the first time in over 30 seasons that a Ram has taken home the award.
“It’s hard to say how far we can go this season because there are a lot of new players,” Russell said. “If everybody comes together, I want to say Final Four.”
That is, if Rhode Island receives eligibility waivers from three key players. Two are twin former-top-100 high school recruits and University of Maryland big man transfers Makhi and Makel Mitchell. The other is two-way wing Malek Martin, a 6-5 Charlotte transfer, who is the younger brother of Rhody great Hassan Martin.
Russell admits that he shares the same ultra-competitive trait both on and off the court. as Michael Jordan. He simply has to win at everything he does. So maybe this truly is Russell’s version of “The Last Dance.”