Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

WNBA Feature: Getting Zealous Over Shavonte As The New York Liberty Hit The Playoff Stretch Drive

By Andy Lipton
NEW YORK -- She plays with the spirit and enthusiasm of a college player. Her winning smile and youthful countenance give the impression of an athlete at the beginning of her career.
Yet no one on her New York Liberty team has been in the WNBA longer.
She is the vocal quarterback of the team, despite not playing the point-guard position, and in only her second season and first as a starter with the Liberty.
Her excellent athleticism and fitness suggest an athlete in the prime of her career.
And if it were up to her fellow WNBA players, she would have been on the All-Star team this season.
The Liberty’s Shavonte Zellous, now in her ninth WNBA season, has been one of the pillars of the franchise this year as New York enters into this season’s home stretch, pushing to make the play-offs for the third year in a row.  
After this Tuesday night’s close win over the Indiana Fever, 81-76 at Madison Square Garden, the 13-12 Liberty was in fifth place in the WNBA combined conference standings, vying for one of the eight play-off spots.

A year ago New York was the dominant team in the East and the third seed overall when the playoffs began, though after a first-round bye, the Liberty got upset at home by the Phoenix Mercury in the new one-and-done deal for the early rounds.

Under the previous WNBA playoff system when teams played within their divisions until the finals-- the top four in both the East and West in the field regardless of record -  coach Bill Laimbeer’s group might have gotten to at least the championship.

But for right now heading into Atlanta Friday night where New York plays the Dream before returning home Sunday to host the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks at 3 p.m., the Liberty have a three and a half game advantage over Atlanta and the Seattle Storm, who are in the ninth and tenth spots, respectively. 

Nine games are left in the regular season.
Zellous, who at 5’10” gives true meaning to the term “small forward”, is one of only two Liberty players – the other is Tina Charles - who have started every game this season.  She is averaging almost 30 minutes a game, the second highest in her WNBA career, and second highest on the team next to Charles.
She is the vocal leader on the court, constantly communicating with her teammates as she directs, cajoles, and encourages.
Zellous knows what is takes to win, having been part of a WNBA Championship with the Indiana Fever in 2012, a EuroLeague championship with Galatasaray in 2014, and a state championship in high school.
And Zellous has experienced individual accolades as a leading scorer and star player most of her college career.  She was first-team All-Big East three years at Pitt, at a time when the Big East had some terrific basketball teams from UConn, Rutgers, Notre Dame, and Louisville.  

 When Zellous was a senior,, Pitt was ranked #15 in the nation.
 In the WNBA, Zellous was on the All-Rookie Team in 2009 and the All-Star Team in 2013.
In my few conversations with her, she is team-first and humble.
Watching Zellous play, you get the sense that because of her skills and team approach, she can adjust her game to fit whatever strategy the coaches design.  
Although the ball is often in the hands of Charles, Sugar Rodgers, and Bria Hartley, Zellous has found ways to score this season and is the second leading scorer on the team averaging close to 12 points a game. 
She has gone to the foul line more than anyone on her team and is shooting a very reliable 82% from the line.  Her shooting percentage is very good at 42%.  And Zellous draws many fouls driving to the hoop.  

Arguably those shots would be scored at a higher-than-her-average percentage had she not been fouled.
In the game against the Indiana, Zellous scored 16 points and was the second leading scorer for the Liberty. The stat line showed 3 for 10 shooting.  But it also showed Zellous went to the foul line 11 times and sank 10.
With the ball in her hands, the ball is going to move to the hoop via a pass or drive.  No wasteful dribbling or holding on to the ball. 

 She can beat her defender off the dribble in either direction.  Her passes are direct and effective.  In the half-court offense, Zellous is the one who in-bounds when the ball is out of bounds.
She leads the team in assists and is slightly behind Epiphanny Price for most assists per game at 3.1.  If she finishes at 3.1 per game, it would be Zellous’ WNBA career best.
At one point in the Indiana game, she made a pass to Kiah Stokes in the post, who quickly passed it back to her on the perimeter.  

Understanding the importance of getting Stokes involved in the set offense in the post, Zellous quickly passed it in again to Stokes who than made her move to the hoop. 

 Yes, a simple and direct play, but important if Stokes is to become a scoring threat.
Zellous is fleet of foot with long strides that take her up and down the court quickly, bearing proof of her days as a successful high school 100-meter sprinter.  Those same feet have serious hops – she was also a successful long jumper in high school -  and she is frequently battling for rebounds.
In the Indiana game, she led both teams in rebounding with eight, three of which were offensive rebounds.  Her 4.2 average rebounds per game are on track to also become her WNBA career best.
Defensively, Zellous is effective as she plays the angle on her opponents to deny the ball while able to sag off when she is on the weak side to show potential weak-side help as well as clog things up.
This season, the WNBA players were given a vote as to who should be the All-Star game starters.  Their vote was weighted with the vote of the fans and the media.  The coaches picked the reserves on the All-Star team, but  Zellous was not selected.
However, based on the vote of her fellow WNBA players, Zellous was voted the number four guard in the Eastern Conference.  If only the players’ vote decided all the players on the team, Zellous would have been an All-Star this season.  

Her peers, the people she plays against and with, understand her worth.