Detroit rookie Shavonte Zellous, right, has scored at least 20 points in three of her last four games.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
So how long exactly is it going to take for the rest of the league to take Detroit guard Shavonte Zellous seriously?
After putting up 12 and 21 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively, of the opening round series win over Atlanta, Zellous was at it again on Wednesday, pouring in a game-high of 23 points in 31 minutes off the bench and sparking Detroit to a 72-56 win over Indiana in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Sure, she’s a rookie, and she didn’t enter the WNBA as heralded as some other college stars, as evidenced by the fact that she slipped all the way to No. 11 in the draft back in April. But it’s safe to assume by now that Zellous is the real deal. Or, better yet, it’s about time opponents recognized that Zellous is the real deal, because her offensive onslaught is cutting teams' seasons short, and the Fever could be next.
Wednesday’s win marked the 18th time in Detroit’s last 19 games that the Pittsburgh product scored in double figures. And signifying that she may be getting better at a time when rookies are supposed to cower under the pressure, Zellous has reached the 20-point plateau three times in the team’s last four contests.
And yet in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Indiana seemed to be content with letting Zellous do her thing, with nary a double-team , while focusing most of their attention on containing Deanna Nolan, who ended with 22 points.
And therein lies the problem teams are currently having in facing the resuscitated Shock. It has become pick your poison between Nolan, one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the entire league for years now, and Zellous, one of the most fearless offensive players to enter the WNBA in a while, maybe since Cappie Pondexter.
Zellous’ aggressiveness is best expressed in the amount of times she gets to the free throw line. During the regular season, Zellous actually finished tied for third with Indiana’s Tamika Catchings for free thows attempted with 181, while shooting an outstanding percentage of .856. And after uncharacteristically failing to get to the line in the playoff opener against the Dream, Zellous has made 20 trips to the charity stripe since.
“Zellous (is playing lights-out right now) because she has been attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line,” said Detroit head coach Rick Mahorn following Game 1 against Indiana. “When you can get to the free-throw line and attack you get good open looks and dribble penetration.”
Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer (before he resigned) actually had Zellous in the starting five to begin the season thanks to an impressive showing in training camp, but after she encountered some shooting woes and failed to take care of the ball, Mahorn made the decision to move Zellous to the bench and use her as instant offense as the first player off the pine. Of course, by now you’ve heard the comparisons between Zellous and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, a scoring machine off the bench for the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” teams of the late 1980s and early ‘90s that Mahorn was a part of.
But Zellous’ role has actually evolved into something bigger than Johnson’s ever was. Right now, with Shock great Katie Smith sidelined and doubtful to return this season because of an injured back, Zellous is playing second banana to Nolan. Zellous is the player the Shock look to when teams double Nolan, or is the focal point of the offense when Nolan is getting a rest, which, granted, is rare.
“I think that I needed to help out a lot since Katie was a big part of the offense with Deanna,” said Zellous after Wednesday’s win. “So I have to come out on the floor, off the bench, and give us some energy and help with some of the scoring.”
And, in an odd way, replacing Smith with Zellous may have made Detroit a more difficult team to defend. She’s faster, more athletic, just as capable of finding an open teammate and she's also benefitting from the unknown.
What is meant by benefitting from the unknown?
Well, forgive the unlikely comparison between WNBA and Major League Baseball, but Zellous is having the impact that baseball phenoms can have when called up in the latter stages of pennant chases and thrust into and important role. The player that first comes to mind is flame-thrower Francisco Rodriguez, or K-Rod as he’s known to many.
K-Rod made his debut with the Anaheim Angels on September 18 of 2002 and proceeded to pitch lights-out for the remainder of the regular season out of the bullpen, allowing no runs over 5 2/3 innings while striking out 13. And he continued to be nearly unhittable in the postseason, posting a 1.93 ERA in 18 2/3 innings of work while striking out 28. The Angels went on to win the World Series that year and K-Rod, which no teams seemed to have an answer for, was a huge reason why.
There are a couple main reasons why players like K-Rod and Zellous are able to shine in such a scenario: 1.) They are extremely talented, and 2.) There isn’t much of a scouting report out there on them yet because there's such a small sample to go off. Sure, Zellous figures to be a star player for the Shock for years to come, but there’s a sense that once the league gets to know her strengths and weaknesses a little better in subsequent years, her success on the court may be reined in a bit.
Then again, six years after K-Rod kicked off his career by propelling the Angels to a championship he set the single-season record for saves with 62, so on second thought maybe this is just the start of something big for the Zellous and the Shock.