Rookie adjusts well to in-season changes

Zellous in the Zone

Shavonte Zellous was in the zone Friday. And, apparently, she stayed there.

Zellous, who made 17 of 19 free throws in the loss at Atlanta, including 13 of 15 in the second quarter, didn’t realize the feat until seeing the box score prior to Sunday’s game against Sacramento.

“I didn’t know until probably two days after, to be honest,” said Zellous, whose prolific night at the free-throw line set five franchise records. “I mean, that’s a lot of free throws. I’d never shot that many free throws in my life.”

The rookie guard then led the Shock in scoring for the second straight game with 18 points in an 86-72 win over the visiting Monarchs. Zellous has emerged as Detroit’s super sub, averaging 18.7 points in three games since moving to the bench.

“Right now that’s what we’re looking at, for her to come off the bench like a Vinnie Johnson,” said Rick Mahorn, who appears to have hit a home run with his first major lineup change as head coach. Johnson was Mahorn’s teammate on the Pistons’ 1989 and 1990 NBA title teams, an instant-offense gunner who complemented the Hall of Fame backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

“She could start, but it gives us an extra spark, an extra scorer, to come off the bench,” he said. “It’s working out so far good. If she can continue to do that she’ll be helpful for us.”

At the rate Zellous is progressing – and making free throws – she’ll do a lot more than that. She’s flattened the learning curve you’d expect for a late first-round pick, keeping a steady hand despite changing roles and head coaches, all before her 10th WNBA game.

No longer “a dead man”

Bill Laimbeer had one target for the No. 11 pick in the April draft – Zellous, a 5-foot-10 guard from Pittsburgh, whose 22 points per game trailed only the No. 1 pick, Louisville’s Angel McCoughtry. The former Shock GM and head coach exhibited a unique confidence in Zellous, making her the first Shock rookie since Cheryl Ford in 2003 to start the season opener.

And then he was gone. On the day Laimbeer declared his NBA aspirations, Zellous called it “a devastating loss, even though it’s my first year.” She hadn’t shot well in the first three games, and it got even worse in Mahorn’s debut. She made one of nine shots, along with four turnovers and five fouls, bringing her season shooting percentage to 24.2.

Sensing Zellous was overwhelmed, Mahorn started second-year guard Alexis Hornbuckle in her place. Two nights later against the same Indiana squad, Zellous scored 13 points in 18 minutes, making four of six shots.

“I wouldn’t really call it pressure, but just knowing your role, because you are on a team with a bunch of veterans so it was basically just knowing [my] role,” she said at Indiana, explaining her comfort with being a reserve.

Next came the parade to the free-throw line in Atlanta, though she hadn’t notice anything out of sorts at the time. “I was in the flow of the game,” she said, “I wasn’t even thinking about it like that.” She finished with 25 points, narrowly missing the franchise rookie scoring record of 28 set last season by Tasha Humphrey.

“I just got to continue to get better each day in practice and compete against the starters and work on my game more,” Zellous said.

There’s evidence to suggest she already has. Critiqued by Laimbeer for grabbing as many rebounds “as a dead man” in her preseason debut, Zellous has thrown her body into the paint, averaging 4.3 rebounds in the regular season – the third-highest mark among all rookies.

Since moving to the bench, Zellous has nearly doubled her shooting percentage (46.4). What she’s doing at the free-throw line is even more extreme.

A Free Throw Phenom

Zellous made 17 of 19 free throws in the June 26 loss at Atlanta, where she scored a season-high 25 points.
Scott Cunningham (NBAE/Getty)
Zellous was a perfect 8-for-8 at the line Sunday, improving to 41-of-44 on the season. That’s 93.2 percent, which, if she were able to keep it up, would challenge the franchise record held by Sandy Brondello, who made 92.3 percent of her free throws (96-of-104) in 1998.

“I’m comfortable. I practice them everyday,” said Zellous who made 78.3 percent of her free throws as a Pitt senior, the seventh-best mark in the BIG EAST. “There’s no reason for me to be impatient.”

Nonetheless, Zellous is shooting an extraordinarily high volume, making it harder to maintain a success rate north of 90 percent. She’s projected to launch double what Brondello did 11 years ago. Zellous leads the WNBA in free throws per 40 minutes (9.2) and is second in free throws attempted over 40 minutes (9.9). At that rate, she will shoot 214 free throws. The Shock have not had a player attempt 200 free throws in a season since Swin Cash did it from 2002 to 2004.

“I dealt with it all throughout my college career – attacking the basket and going to the free-throw line – so that’s just something I’m used to,” said Zellous, who shot 253 free throws this season – 42 more than the next closest shooter with a percentage in the top 15. She attempted twice as many free throws as Connecticut guard Renee Montgomery, who was taken seven spots ahead of her on draft day by Minnesota.

Through pleased with her proclivity for getting to the line, Zellous won’t take it for granted. “I’ve just got to keep staying aggressive, whether they [the officials] call it or not,” she said.

Even when she does get a whistle, Zellous won’t shy away from standing up for herself. With Detroit leading by 18 in the third quarter Sunday, Zellous forced a turnover and raced upcourt until she was knocked to the floor by Monarchs guard Chelsea Newton, who was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul.

Zellous popped up with a scowl and some harsh words as teammates kept her from getting to Newton. The foul set the tone for more chippy play in the fourth as the Monarch pulled within eight points. Zellous made both free throws (of course) and then scored eight of her 18 in the final quarter to quell the Sacramento rally, proving yet again that it’s not who starts – but rather who finishes – that really matters.

“I mean, I love it,” she said after the game, her scowl now a mischievous grin. “Can’t you tell?”