When Dewayne Russell attempts to look back to last season where he played his first season with the Crailsheim Merlins, he remembers a lot of hardship as a result of many losses and long losing streaks of 9 in the first half of the season and 7 loses in a row near the end, but in the end the team was saved staying in the easyCredit BBl for another season. But all in all it was a tough season for him and the club despite him averaging 11.3ppg, 2.1rpg, 4.2apg, FGP: 50.0%, 3PT: 37.0%, FT: 75.0%, very respectable stats for a BBL newcomer that arrived from Nancy in the France Pro B. The American who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Peoria, Arizona returns back to Frankfurt today and will have a lot of confidence and only fond memories as he was a key contributor in the Crailsheim Merlins fancy 91-77 victory last season. It was a turning point in their season as they were 1-10 coming into the contest and then would win the next weekend against Braunschweig. In the win in Frankfurt, Russell steered home 22 points and was the match winner as he scored 10 points in a row in the third quarter breaking a 50-50 tie and the Merlins would never look back cruising to victory. There is another reason why Russell and Co will arrive in the game with self confidence despite losing their first meeting in Crailsheim this season 76-68 is their current record. It has been like day and night between last season and last season as currently Crailsheim is resting in sixth place and there is serious talk in the Merlins community of the playoffs becoming a reality. The Crailsheim Merlins have been the little darlings of the league surprising everyone with their ambitious and aggressive play which has led to a brutal offense wiping away opponents at times like a lethal tornado causing havoc on the Oklahoma prairie land. The Crailsheim Merlins come to Frankfurt seeking revenge, but will meet a more healthy team as some of the walking wounded of the Skyliners are expected to be back. That first loss really hurt badly, because Crailsheim drilled home 14 three´s, but in the end still had a long bus ride home having the loss in the back of their minds. The club knows exactly what they need to do not to get swept. “It’s just going to come down to the basics for us. We need to follow coaches game plan and play as hard as we can. All of us being the same page is key and staying disciplined to our principles”, warned Dewayne Russell. It will also be like going back to school for the American as he loves competing against the Skyliner legend Quantez Robertson. “He is a great defensive player. I always try to learn from good Vets that have played in the BBL for a long time”, stressed Dewayne Russell.
Coming into the 2019-2020 season nobody expected much from the Crailsheim Merlins after their finish last season. Also in a way the club´s claim to fame continues to be their embarrassing bus ride in the snow to Giessen some years ago which they never reached. People will always remember seeing the photos of players posing for selfies on the German Autobahn on social media. But those days are long forgotten. This season´s club is for real. They quickly rattled off a five game winning streak to start the season. The quick start didn´t surprise him at all. “I saw the potential during preseason and we worked really hard during the off season. We still have a long way to go. I’m excited for the remainder of the season. It has been a very interesting season so far for the Crailsheim Merlins”, warned Dewayne Russell. They beat Giessen in the first game and then followed Bayreuth. The BBL slowly started to take notice after they dismantled the Telekom Baskets Bonn a team that has been in the cellar, but at the start of the season was a sure playoff team on paper. The team belongs to the top offensive teams in the BBL averaging 89 points, but haven´t put it together on the defensive end yet allowing 85 points per game. Russell sees the team success as being something that should always be there on a daily basis. “I don’t think there’s really a secret. Our team just works hard. We’re just trying to be at our best every day”, warned Dewayne Russell. Then the team struggled suffering five loses in six games. They played Oldenburg and Wurzburg tough, but had misfortune in crunch-time not getting the needed bounces, shots and stops. But since that losing streak, the team has been having good times again having won five of the last six games. They won two shoot outs against Braunschweig and Hamburg and then beat strong teams ratiopharm Ulm and Bamberg back to back. They held Bamberg to only 69 points as their defense seems to be making strides at the moment. “ We just want to take it one game at a time making sure we handle all of the little details. We are definitely getting better defensively. We know we can score with anyone in the league, it just comes down to us getting stops”, warned Dewayne Russell.
What has been amazing with the success of the Crailsheim Merlins this season is how they have managed to be so successful. On paper, they surely aren´t a playoff team, but that didn´t bother any of the players as some have exceeded expectations something the club couldn´t do last season. From my view point, the team was more talented last season and had so much more experience with 6 players above the 30 year old mark. “This years team has a lot of talent. Last years team had more experience with the older guys but this years team is much younger and just as talented”, added Dewayne Russell. But last years team just wasn´t able to gel and play together and consistently, but this year´s team is totally different. They usually have a 9 man rotation, but six players average double figures and Jan Spahn is at 8,9ppg. That demonstrates a team that is unselfish and enjoys sharing the ball. The idea that the club needs to rely too much on the starting five to be consistent isn´t something that the club listens to or is afraid of. “We don’t look at it as a starting 5, we look at it as a collective whole. We all play together at some point during the game”, stated Dewayne Russell. Not to forget a lot of the players have no BBL experience and came from lower leagues, but that didn´t haunt head coach Tuomas Iisalo who took what he had on the court and quickly formed it into a winning culture. The coach is a candidate for coach of the year at the present moment. “He has been great for the entire club. He is more than just a good basketball coach, he is a great leader, mentor and developer”, stressed Dewayne Russell.
The club´s leading scorer is ex Fordham(NCAA) stand out Javontae Hawkins who has been climbing the basketball ladder the last years as he had a solid rookie season with the Salon Vilpas Vikings (Finland-Korisliiga) and last season made the next step with Holargos B.C. (Greece-A1) averaging 11.7ppg, 3.9rpg, 1.2apg, FGP: 53.4%, 3PT: 33.3%, FT: 77.5% and averaging double figures in scoring against Euroleague team Olympiacos for 13 and 15 points in losing causes. This season he has made another big step up the basketball ladder with Crailsheim averaging 16,4ppg, 4,5rpg and 1,4apg. He hit Bayreuth for 25 points, Braunschweig for 24 points and Ludwigsburg for 23 points. “Hawk is a really big piece to everything that we do. He is one of the best scorers in the BBL and does a great job defensively. Hawk’s going to continue to be good for us all year”, stressed Dewayne Russell. Another key player to the success has been Chilean-German guard Sebastian Herrera who continues to make huge strides despite being only 23 years old. He got his first few years of experience with Trier and is in his third season with Crailsheim. After having a very good Pro A season in 2017-2018 where he averaged 7.6ppg, 3.5rpg, 1.3apg at age 20, he had growing pains in his first BBL year averaging 4,5ppg, but this season has had his absolute breakthrough. He currently is averaging 13,1ppg, 2,7rpg and 2,7apg while shooting a refreshing 46% from the parking lot. “Seba has also been a great leader for us. He is the captain of our team and always makes sure the team is organized. That’s what I appreciate the most about him”, said Dewayne Russell. One guy who could make that final difference between playoffs and not is experienced German Maurice Stuckey who brought 284 BBL games experience to Crailsheim, but so far has only averaged 5,4ppg in 12 minutes per game. He is still looking to crack the offensive rotation” His on ball defense and 3 point shooting is going to help us in the long run. He is going to continue to play more and more as the year progresses., stressed Dewayne Russell. Russell has been sharing minutes at the point with experienced Slovenian Jan Spahn and combined give the club 10 assists per game. Russell and Spahn are a very underrated duo, but have been getting the job done consistently. Russell knows that there is always something you can learn from a teammate. “I love having Jan as a teammate. It has been good for me to pick his brain and learn from him. I’m working on learning his step back from him“, added Dewayne Russell.
Last season, it seemed at times that Russell got lost in the team shuffle with so many guys and this season he has increased his minute from 21 to 26 and is almost averaging 6 assists per game. But looking at his own stats has never been a priority for him. “I’ve been happy so far because we have been winning. I haven’t really thought about individual stats, just trying to win each game”, warned Dewayne Russell. He started the season solid, but did have some tough games against MBC, Goettingen and FC Bayern Munich, but since December 27 has scored in double figures in 6 straight games. Currently he is averaging 12,5ppg, 2,9rpg and 5,9apg and has improved his shooting from 37% to 41% from outside. The American who averaged 21.2ppg, 3.8rpg, 5.4apg, 1.5spg, FGP: 40.2%, 3PT: 39.7%, FT: 75.8% as a senior at Grand Canyon(NCAA) explains his secret to further development and his improved three point shooting and stellar defense. “I’m just focusing on what I can do to help our team to win. Whatever coach needs me to do, I’ll do it. I focused on taking smarter shots this year. I still have more to improve on from behind the arc. I’m focusing on communicating more with my teammates on defense and giving maximum effort”, warned Dewayne Russell. When Russell walks on the floor in the Fraport arena on Sunday, it will be two weeks since the death of Kobe Bryant. He found out of his passing in Berlin and the news is still very difficult for him to take. “I was in the hotel room in Berlin getting ready to play Alba. He meant a lot to me because I consider him to be one of the greatest players ever. Growing up, he was one of the first players I watched that made me fall in love with the game”, warned Dewayne Russell. Russell surely has a deeper connection to Kobe Bryant now. You never forget when you fell in Love for the first time especially for a basketball player and the game.