Always a scorer, Zellous proves she can do a lot more

Recognition for the Rookie

As reporters surrounded Deanna Nolan’s locker Wednesday after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Nolan asked a team PR rep if she should address media in the press conference room instead, her customary role as Detroit’s leading scorer most nights.

“No,” she was told, “Just Z.”

“Well, pssh,” hissed Nolan, waving dismissively. She then playfully scolded Shavonte Zellous, who had scored a game-high 23 points for the victorious Shock. Nolan, who had 22, couldn’t help but smile at the attention her first-year teammate was getting.

Zellous has indeed taken center stage in the 2009 Playoffs, having posted back-to-back games of 21 and 23 points. In the absence of floor leader Katie Smith, Zellous has taken her game to a level few expected when Detroit made her the No. 11 pick in April’s draft. Her inclusion on the WNBA All-Rookie Team, however, shouldn’t be a surprise at all. In a matter of months, Zellous has evolved from a talented rookie scorer into an all-around playoff performer.

All-Around Improvement

Detroit is 8-2 since back pain sidelined Smith, the 2008 Finals MVP. While Nolan has rightly deserved accolades for leading the Shock in her absence – three straight Player of the Week awards and All-WNBA Second Team honors – Zellous has consistently loaded the box score, too.

“Obviously she’s played excellent, but you know she’s got it in her. She’s had some great games during the year,” Smith said. “She can definitely score the basketball. Basically from the get-go, though, she’s had no fear and just goes out there and plays hard.”

Zellous has replaced Smith as Detroit’s No. 2 scorer – averaging 14.8 points in the last 10 games – and as a 3-point threat. Known as a midrange shooter coming out of Pittsburgh, Zellous made just four triples in the Shock’s first 15 games. She’s matched that in just three playoff games, connecting on 4-of-7 from downtown.

“She’s just one of those players, she has the ‘it’ factor,” said Shock GM Cheryl Reeve. “The things that she does in the game, the way she scores the ball, that’s all her. She’s got that knack to get fouled and to make some tough shots.”

After shooting the third-most free throws in the WNBA this season, Zellous has made 18 of 20 free throws in the last two games. She is also taking better care of the basketball, committing just three turnovers in 86 minutes of playoff basketball. She had three or more turnovers 14 times in the regular season.

“She’s got her own style,” Smith said. “Everybody’s got their own style, as you learn the little ins and outs of the defense or the tendencies of the players. I think she’s getting more comfortable now that she’s played teams more than a couple times.”

Zellous also has made strides as a rebounder and defender – a necessity to fit into the Shock locker room. “I think it’s just being around everybody, understanding how hard you have to play,” Smith said. “She has experienced just how hard you have to play at all times and at both ends of the floor. She’s done a great job of stepping up her game on the defensive end.”

The 5-foot-10 Zellous has 14 rebounds – nearly five per game – since the playoffs started, which illustrates how far she’s come since her preseason debut, when she grabbed none. She also has four steals and two blocks, a testament to lessons she’s taken from Smith and Nolan, both former All-Defensive Team members.

“Tweety and Katie have really helped me as far as defense because that’s stuff I really didn’t know coming out of college,” she said. “That helped me improve because they know what it takes to win a championship, and clearly all three of their championships, they won because of their defense. I’ve bought into that and that’s what I’m doing.”

Draft Day Delight

The eleventh pick overall, Zellous was the lowest selection to make the All-Rookie Team, which the WNBA announced Thursday. Nothing before the draft – and certainly nothing since – has suggested she’s anything but a top-10 talent.

“I was very, very concerned,” said Reeve, who was assistant general manager to Bill Laimbeer on draft day. “I didn’t think there’d be any chance she would be there [at No. 11]. A lot of teams were drafting on need versus talent and that really helped us out.”

Some teams wanted to add size, like Connecticut, which selected 6-foot-5 Duke center Chante Black at No. 10. Black averaged 2.9 points and 3.8 rebounds for the Sun, who missed the playoffs.

Zellous has outperformed many members of her draft class, especially late in the season when her role expanded. The Sky, which selected guard Kristi Toliver at No. 3, were knocked out of the playoffs after Zellous had 20 points and four assists in an 80-69 Detroit victory Sept. 12. Toliver had three points in eight minutes.

Since Sept. 1, Zellous also has been on the favorable end of meetings with former Big East rival Angel McCoughtry (No. 1 to Atlanta) and DeWanna Bonner (No. 5 to Phoenix), both of whom finished ahead of her in voting for Sixth Woman of the Year and, most likely, Rookie of the Year. In Game 1 Wednesday, Zellous outshined the No. 6 pick, Briann January, who had seven points and five rebounds for the Fever.

“I didn’t really look at it as motivation,” Zellous said of being passed over on draft day. “I took it as whatever team I get on, I’m going to give it my all, and that’s what I’ve done here with the Detroit Shock. I’m just fortunate that they were able to get me and I’m on a championship team.”

To put Zellous’ rise in perspective, Nolan – a five-time All-WNBA honoree – didn’t average double figures or go to the playoffs until her third season, in 2003. “I think in the early part of the season we knew she as going to be a very good player,” Reeve said, “but we thought maybe next year or the year after, much like Nolan’s development.”

In other words, the draft is in the past. And the future is now.