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Benefield: Bertsch taking hoops dreams to Russia

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Morgan Bertsch was going to Russia either way.

Heading into the Dallas Wings’ training camp in May, the third-round pick out of UC Davis, was already committed to playing the WNBA offseason in Russia. It was just a matter of where and for whom.

When the Wings waived Bertsch after the camp, the idea of playing in the Russian League took on a new focus: Use the season to develop her perimeter game and ball- handling skills.

A post player during her record-setting career at Davis, Bertsch learned quickly during her two-week tryout in Dallas that her ability to play in the WNBA rests largely on her ability to transform into more of a backcourt player.

Bertsch, the Santa Rosa High School grad who was also a record-setting high jumper for the Aggies, decided that more than leagues in, say, China, Turkey, or Australia, the Russian League has the highest caliber of competition in which to hone her game. It also has the kind of WNBA names playing there each winter that generate a lot of attention from WNBA scouts and team officials.

“It’s pretty well known that Russia is the best league to play overseas because of the talent,” she said. “Big name people — Diana Taurasi, Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner — have played there. That was something.”

The first team to reach out to her was in Novosibirsk. Siberia.

Bertsch said that the positive is that for the first time in her life, basketball can now take center stage, basketball can be her sole focus — no school, no track and field, no distractions. Siberia might be perfect.

“I definitely had that battle in my head a lot: ‘Why can’t I just have both, the fun, awesome experience as well as having amazing basketball?’ But the reality is that if you want the higher chance of going to the WNBA, this is the best option.”

“It was kind of me weighing basketball and furthering my career,” she said. “Russia was the place to be.”

And yet, Siberia?

Siberia, for those wondering, is home to the world’s coldest permanently inhabited town, Oymyakon (that’s pronounced “Ohmyit’scold”) where lows of 60 below zero are typical in the winter months, according to weather.com. In Novosibirsk the average low in January and February is minus 20.

But just as Bertsch was knee deep in the Wings’ spring camp, another Russian outfit came calling with an offer. This time it was a team from Moscow.

It seemed like a better fit.

“People would actually want to come visit me there,” she said.

“I have never been to Russia, I don’t know a lot about it,” she said. “I have a list of things I want to do there, hopefully.”

On the plus side, compared with Novosibirsk, Moscow is practically balmy. Bertsch, who says she has never lived in a snowy climate, should expect September temps to average a high of 61 degrees and a low of 45. Creeping into winter and things get a mite chillier, though. The average high in February is 25 degrees with an average low of 14 degrees.

If all things had gone exactly according to script, Bertsch would have been heading off to Russia in a couple of weeks with a deal already signed with the Wings. But Dallas brass thought the 6-foot, 4-inch Bertsch needed to work to become more a guard than a post player.

If anyone can grow her game, it’s Bertsch. Out of Santa Rosa High, the two-sport standout got exactly one Division I offer. After redshirting a year at Davis, Bertsch went on to rewrite their program’s record books while last spring leading the team to their first NCAA tournament since 2011. She was the fourth most prolific scorer among the nation’s Div. I programs last season with 23.6 points per game.

“When I got (to Dallas) it was predominantly the 3 position which was surprising to me,” she said. “(At Davis) I was pretty much exclusively at the 5, down low in the post.”

“I’ll definitely use those guard skills more than I did at Davis,” she said. “They were really pleased how I took the challenge and just kind of went with it. They were pleasantly surprised with how I developed in those two weeks.”

This is not a build-it-from-scratch project. She can shoot. By the end of her career with the Aggies, Bertsch had added a whole new dimension to her game and was shooting 48 percent from behind the 3-point line.

But it was clear to Bertsch, after spending two weeks in Dallas, there are elements of her game that she needs to grow to be successful in the WNBA. And that remains the ultimate goal — to play in the WNBA.

I asked if being waived had any similarities to her being asked to redshirt her first year at Davis.

“When they brought up redshirting, I definitely wanted to play that year,” she said. “Baby freshman Morgan was maybe a little disappointed but now I know it was by far the best decision.”

After that redshirt year, it would be hard to write a better script for Bertsch at Davis. She now owns the school’s career scoring record, blocks record and also broke the school’s high jump record in track.

So Bertsch is inclined to be philosophical about not signing with the Wings and working on her game for at least one season abroad before trying to give it a go with the WNBA at a team camp next spring.

“I want to get back there,” she said. “Yeah, it was technically the first bump in the road that I hit, but I also have to realize that my career isn’t all that old.”

And going to Dallas, and getting waived, offered her insight into what teams are likely looking at that level.

“It was a huge learning experience,” she said.

So Bertsch is back in Davis now working on her dribbling, executing ball screens, and working on her 3-point shot that at 22-feet, 1.75 inches is more than a foot deeper than she was used to in college.

And this is where a year, or two, or three, in Russia comes in.

“I have a whole year in Russia, a whole year to develop,” she said.

And she expects team officials to push her right into the action. There will likely be no gentle acclimation period there.

“This is ‘Come in, you need to be able to do your stuff, come in and score how you score, rebound how you rebound, command the court how you do. This is why we hired you. This is why you are here: Produce.’”

A one-year gig, maybe two? Bertsch doesn’t know. And she doesn’t know if she’ll stay in Russia or try her hand at another international league, or whether this season will be just what she needs to grab the attention of a WNBA organization.

She just knows she’s got to get the most out of this winter to further the dream of suiting up professionally stateside.

“I don’t have all that much planned except for what’s right in front of me,” she said. “At this point, it’s a job.”

But it’s still a dream, too.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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