Basketball: Zellous happy coming off bench in her first WNBA season

By Lauren Kirschman

Former Pitt basketball All-American Shavonte Zellous finds herself in an unusual position in her… Former Pitt basketball All-American Shavonte Zellous finds herself in an unusual position in her first year with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock — starting the game on the bench.

However, Zellous is embracing her new role. Through 13 games, she’s averaged 23.4 minutes a game and 11 points, which ranks third for the defending champion Shock and second among WNBA rookies. Her .905 free-throw percentage is third best for all rookies.

“I love my position of coming off the bench,” Zellous said. “I don’t have a problem with that. I’m learning the ropes of things around the league.”

Zellous started four games this season, but has since been used as a reserve. She said her new role gives her the opportunity to observe and work into the flow of the game.

“I can see how the opponent is working the system,” Zellous said. “The experience is great. I love it.”

Zellous’ team-first attitude is a quality she carries with her from her days at Pitt. Panthers coach Agnus Berenato said Zellous refused to discuss the WNBA during her senior season and was completely focused on the team.

“I can honestly say that in the time she was at Pitt, Shavonte really took her skills to the next level,” Berenato said. “The skills that she worked on were what we call teammate skills. She wanted to be a leader and wanted to lead her team and Pitt as far as they could go into the NCAA Tournament.”

Last year, Zellous was the leader of a Pitt squad that advanced to the Sweet 16, the Panthers’ second consecutive trip to that round. Now Zellous has the opportunity to learn from the veterans on her new team. The experienced players help her scout other WNBA teams, Zellous said, because they know the makeup and style of each opponent.

“They tell me their weaknesses, their strengths, what not to give them and all the extra things. I just learn and listen to them because they know the game,” Zellous said. “They are helping me become a great player and one of these days I’m going to be just like they are.”

Berenato said that Zellous’ skills are just one of the reasons why the guard will find success in the WNBA. Another reason — and one that makes Zellous stand out — Berenato said, is her personality.

“She has a smile the size of California and she really enjoys playing the game,” Berenato said. “When you have somebody on the court that plays with true passion, the game seems larger than what it is because she has what we call ‘charisma on the court.’”

Zellous took that charisma with her to the professional level. Berenato said a journalist in Seattle told her Zellous “still plays cool, smiles at the media and shakes everyone’s hands at press conferences” the same way she did at Pitt.

“A lot of times people are drafted, but they’re never going to make anything of themselves after they’re drafted. They realize, ‘Oh, that was my goal’ and they just settle,” Berenato said. “Well, Shavonte has now gone to the next level.”

Although Zellous is adjusting well during her rookie season in the WNBA, she still notices differences between the college and professional games. For one, she said the WNBA is more physical than the collegiate level.

“You’re dealing with veterans who have been around the league for three and five and nine years, and they know the game. You’re fresh out of college, so they label you as a rookie so they’re going to come after you,” Zellous said.

Berenato said she had the opportunity to watch Zellous play in person this season, including the June 8 game at Detroit when the Shock received their world championship rings. Zellous started that game and was the first rookie to start a season-opener for the Shock since 2003.

“It was really wonderful to see the excitement around that, because we hope to win a national championship [at Pitt],” Berenato said. “[Zellous] is just really blooming and I think Pitt really took care of her for life in the WNBA.”

Zellous’ success is important for the Pitt women’s basketball, Berenato said, adding that players often have two goals when they come to college: to get a degree and to play in the league.

“Now, at Pitt, we can say that you will get a degree from one of the top institutions and we can get you to the league, because Shavonte was drafted and she’s been hugely successful,” Berenato said.