Russell makes giant strides for Burrell boys basketball

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Tuesday, January 30, 2018 | 12:28 AM


For his role as Giant Rumblebuffin in Burrell's fall production of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” Donovan Russell needed to don stilts.

The accessory took Russell's height up to 9 feet, 8 inches, making the 6-foot-5 senior appear even more … well, giant. But the biggest adjustment came in moving around.

“I had to learn it pretty quickly since I couldn't make a lot of drama due to basketball,” said Russell, Burrell's starting center. “I'd say it took me around three weeks or so to get really able to walk on my own without any help. I thought I did pretty well; I never fell once.

“Especially for my parents, they were really concerned with having me up on stilts. One fall and that could be problematic. But I like doing both drama and sports, and my director definitely looked out for my safety.”

Burrell's boys basketball team can breathe a sigh of relief. After an injury-hampered junior season, Russell is manning the middle in a giant way for the Bucs.

Russell posted back-to-back double-doubles in Section 3-3A victories last week over Apollo-Ridge (20 points, 10 rebounds) and South Allegheny (16 points, 15 rebounds), then had a triple-double (10 points, 15 rebounds, 10 blocks) in a win Monday over Shady Side Academy that put Burrell (8-10, 5-2) into a tie for first place.

Such performances are becoming commonplace for Russell, who teams with junior guard Logan Bitar as an effective inside-outside combination on offense — even if Russell sometimes wonders if he can provide both inside and outside offense.

“He keeps asking me if he can take some perimeter jump shots, and he shoots pretty decent in practice,” Burrell coach Shawn Bennis said. “We keep him inside quite often because he can be a force in there when he's aggressive and doing the things that he does well.”

Whatever works. Bitar and Russell have effectively replaced the production lost by the graduation of guard Max Garda and forward Nick Kotecki from last year's team.

Russell's breakthrough actually is coming perhaps a year behind schedule. Bennis expected him to assume a role in the starting lineup last season, until he suffered a broken collarbone in a “Turkey Bowl” game with friends around Thanksgiving 2016.

Not only did the injury end Russell's backyard football career — “I'm definitely retired,” he said — it kept him out for the first six weeks of the season. He rejoined the lineup in time for section play and had a breakthrough performance in the Bucs' WPIAL first-round playoff loss to eventual WPIAL champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, coming off the bench to score a team-high 12 points.

“He did a really nice job for us in the playoff game,” Bennis said.

That performance propelled Russell into an offseason during which he picked up his overall play while competing in AAU, and he earned an All-Star team selection at the Hoop Group Elite Camp in July at Albright College. The camp, which features instruction from college coaches, can be important for recruiting.

Russell said he improved most in his movement, honing his ability to get loose rebounds. That's an important skill in his role as Burrell's big man.

“What I see (my role) as is just to hit the glass as hard as I can on every possession and lock down the opposition's strongest post player,” said Russell, the Bucs' leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer. “The scoring, honestly, I saw it as a result of my hustle toward the boards and just banging down low as hard as I can.”

Russell also started in goal for Burrell's boys soccer team for four seasons, which only helps his defensive ability.

“It definitely helps my lateral quickness a lot, and a lot of people don't know as a goalie, the physicality you have to have,” said Russell, who is attracting Division II and III interest for basketball and considers Bethany (W.Va.), Goucher (Md.) and Mount Saint Mary (N.Y.) among his top choices. “I definitely think that helps, too. And to get those balls you have to have pretty good hand-eye coordination.”

Although Russell gets most of his points around the basket, he does shoot it from the outside during AAU play, and he also has improved his performance at the foul line. He shot 6 of 8 from the free-throw line in the win over Apollo-Ridge.

“I have to give a lot of credit to assistant coach (Mark) Ziemianski,” Russell said. “He stays after practice and before practice all the time to let us get free throws up. It's helped so much.”

Russell has a role in Burrell's spring production of “Once Upon a Mattress” — playing knight Sir Luce, so no stilts this time — but for now the main focus is on the basketball stretch run.

“This team has a lot of chemistry,” Russell said. “We jelled together, and we're playing well right now.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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