The mean average temperature for the Russian city of Vologda is 37 degrees. The record low for the month of January is a frigid minus-52.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The chilly surroundings, oddly enough, had a greenhouse effect on Glory Johnson’s game while playing there this season for the local women’s basketball team. The Russian winter thwarted most plans for a leisurely afternoon stroll. Conversely, it didn’t prevent the former University of Tennessee All-American from lingering at the gym.
“It was so cold outside,” she said. “I was always inside.”
And that’s the inside story of the Tulsa Shock forward, who’s blossoming into one of the WNBA’s top young players this summer. She was named the Western Conference player of the week last month after averaging 17.3 points and 10 rebounds per game for three games. On June 23, she scored a career-high 24 points in a road game against Minnesota.
In her second season, she is averaging 16.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Her output constitutes a significant upgrade from her rookie year, when she averaged 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds.
Johnson traces the improvement back to her season overseas, playing for Chevakata. Vologda is in northern Russia, about six hours by car from Moscow. Along with winter winds, the barriers erected by language and alphabet also contributed to Johnson’s focus.
“There wasn’t much to do,” she said, “but eat, sleep and play basketball.”
Since Chevakata had a true post player, Johnson was at times deployed away from the basket. Her role encouraged investment in her mid-range skills.
“I shot a lot more when I was overseas,” she said. “It brings a whole different mindset.
“I definitely came back with a lot more confidence and maturity.”
By her count, Johnson also came back with nine more pounds. She considered the extra weight to be an improvement, too.
Johnson’s challenge to maintain her sleek frame or build upon it goes back to her days at Tennessee. She’d confer with school nutritionists. She moved back home before her junior year and benefitted from the cooking of her mother, Mercy. She still cooked as if all five of her children were sitting down to the dinner table, instead of just three.
In Vologda, Johnson assumed the role of her mother.
“I think I’m a better-sized player because I’m a better cook,” said Johnson, laughing.
For now, she needs the extra size. The 6-foot-3 Johnson said that she’s been playing primarily in the post while Tulsa’s true center — 6-8 Elizabeth Cambage — gets up to full speed.
The Shock are 3-11 and last in the Western Conference, but Johnson said that the team is not deterred.
“We know it’s coming,” Johnson said. “We’re playing a lot better than we were last year. We’re correcting (mistakes) in the game. We can see them now.”
Despite her strong start, Johnson still could use an efficiency upgrade. She’s averaging nearly three turnovers per game and her shooting percentage sank to 41.5 percent after a 4-for-15 performance against Connecticut last Tuesday. Johnson said she wants to “get better on a little bit of everything.”
It’s her mindset. Apparently, it travels well.