Zellous' Time Has Arrived

By Wheat Hotchkiss | September 22, 2013

If asked to define the 2013 Indiana Fever’s regular season in one word, many onlookers might say “adversity.” After all, the defending WNBA Champions have battled through an almost unfathomable slew of injuries, with nearly every player missing time at one point or another.

But another word that sums up the 2013 season just as well is “opportunity.” As starters shuffled in and out of the lineup and replacement players shuffled on and off the roster, a whole host of players have had opportunities to showcase their abilities and make larger contributions.

Through adversity comes opportunity, and several players have risen to the occasion.

Erlana Larkins has emerged as a full-time starter (she’s the only player to start all 34 regular season games) and a tenacious, physical presence in the paint and on the glass.

Karima Christmas has evolved from a seldom-used reserve to one of the rocks of the Fever lineup, a fierce defender with the versatility to play on the wing or in the post.

But no player has made a bigger leap this season than Shavonte Zellous.

Over the course of this season, Zellous, in her fifth year out of Pittsburgh, has blossomed from a talented role player to a bona fide star. Her growth was deservedly commemorated on Sunday, when the WNBA named her the league’s Most Improved Player. Zellous is the third player in franchise history to earn that distinction, joining Kelly Miller (2004) and Ebony Hoffman (2008).

You’ll find no better illustration of Zellous’ growth as a player than her performance Friday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. She picked and chose her spots in the flow of the Indiana offense, but when she did attack, she did so aggressively, scoring efficiently in a variety of ways.

A team-best 20 points. 7-for-11 from the field. 3-for-3 from 3-point range. Zero turnovers.

My, how far she’s come.

Zellous’ journey through the WNBA is a profile in patience and preparation.

As a rookie, she flashed All-Star potential, averaging 11.9 points in 2009 as a super sub for the Detroit Shock. But there were still holes in her game. She turned the ball over too much (2.3 turnovers in under 24 minutes per game) and lacked much touch from outside (30.6 percent from 3-point range).

Zellous was traded to Indiana a few games in to the next season, and though she became a key contributor off the bench over the next three seasons, she never came close to her rookie scoring average. That was okay, because the Fever had Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas.

In last year’s playoffs, Zellous finally got her time to shine. She averaged 10.6 points in 10 games, and when Douglas and Jeanette Pohlen went down, no player stepped up more than Zellous. She played brilliantly in the WNBA Finals, including a virtuoso 30-point, 10-for-17 shooting performance in Game 3.

At the start of this season, with Indiana’s backcourt riddled with injuries, Zellous took on an even heavier load offensively. She scored in double figures in each of the Fever’s first 15 games, and finished the season with an average of 14.7 points per game, an improvement of 7.2 points on her average from last season.

With Katie Douglas sidelined for much of the season and sharpshooters Erin Phillips and Pohlen out over half the year, Zellous became the much-needed compliment to Tamika Catchings on the offensive end. Her improvement resulted in her first-ever All-Star selection.

The player her teammates affectionately call “Z” also improved her touch from the outside. Zellous shot a career-best 34.8 percent from 3-point range. Zellous tirelessly worked on improving her outside touch while playing in Turkey during the offseason.

“I was always a player who loves the contact, attacking the basket, and had a nice mid-range game,” she said back in June. “But I think my outside shot, as far as 3-point range, it needed to improve."

Her teammates and coaches have taken note of her work ethic. Though Zellous is a bubbly personality who is almost always smiling and making jokes with her teammates, there’s no question she approaches the game seriously.

“She comes in early and she stays late to work on her shot,” head coach Lin Dunn said prior to the All-Star Game.

Zellous, who turned 27 on Aug. 28, is just now entering the prime of her career. She has taken on more of a leadership role with the Fever. No longer just a role player, Zellous is now the type of player you build a team around. Is it unreasonable to expect her to continue to grow?

She doesn’t seem to think so.

“If you don't improve your game, somebody is coming to snatch your job,” Zellous said earlier this year. “Each year, I want to get better and help my team any way that I can.”