August 2, 2021
‘Everybody needs a Zellous’
Shavonte Zellous' unique and unforgettable WNBA legacy
Shavonte Zellous is known for making a grand entrance.
“Probably every day, she walks into the weight room and says, ‘Sarah, your favorite’s here!’” said Washington Mystics teammate Sydney Wiese, using a singsong tone to imitate Zellous greeting strength and conditioning coach Sarah Walls. “Just like that, every single day. … You can hear it from across the gym. … You hear it all the time. And everyone agrees she is the favorite. She should be.”
Zellous has been a presence—even a favorite—in WNBA locker rooms for over a decade, playing for five franchises in six cities. The 5’10 combo guard has played exactly 400 career games, eighth-most among active players, and won a championship in 2012 with the Indiana Fever. Her statistics aren’t always the flashiest, as she is averaging 8.6 points per game in her career and 3.6 per game this season. But her work ethic, locker room intangibles and willingness and ability to play any role have made her a mainstay in the world’s most competitive league.
Growing up in Orlando, Florida, Zellous’ first love was the track, where she showed the same versatility and adaptability that she now displays on the basketball court. “I did long jump, triple jump, high jump, 100[-meter dash], 200, 4×100 [relay], 4×400 and sometimes the 400,” she told The Next. “… So yeah, my goal really wasn’t to play basketball, as crazy as it sounds.”
Zellous became a four-year captain of her high school track team and a regional champion in the 100 meters, but her track career gave way to basketball after that thanks to an uncle’s intuition. He noticed Zellous’ athleticism and believed she could earn a basketball scholarship, so he pushed her in high school to focus more on her basketball career.
As Zellous tells it, her potential wasn’t as obvious as her uncle made it seem. When she first played basketball in middle school, she said, “I sucked. The only thing I could do was really just jump … I was at the four [position] because I really wasn’t that skillful to be a guard.” She quickly gravitated toward defense: “I wasn’t the most talented offensive player. I really couldn’t shoot. I was very just athletic, so I was like, Defense would be perfect for me.”
However, Zellous quickly found her stride on the court, leading her team to a state championship as a senior and a runner-up finish as a junior. In each of those seasons, she averaged better than 15 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and five steals.
Still, only two Division I programs took notice: South Carolina State and Pittsburgh. The latter didn’t recruit her until her senior year, after legendary women’s basketball coach and then-Pittsburgh assistant Marynell Meadors saw her play in the state tournament. She signed with Pittsburgh, then redshirted her freshman season as she adjusted to the college game and the coaching staff’s expectations.
“We saw in her so many things as a coaching staff that I don’t think she had quite seen in herself yet,” former Pittsburgh assistant and current George Washington head coach Caroline McCombs told The Next. “And so our challenge was just to get that out of her.”
Just as in high school, Zellous improved by leaps and bounds in college, especially after she started to see a professional future for herself. As a redshirt freshman, Zellous started 23 games and was Pitt’s fourth-leading scorer at 7.7 points per game, but she said she “really didn’t … understand the game” until her sophomore season, when an assistant coach challenged her to step up after a teammate’s season-ending injury. She had worked all offseason to become a better scorer—“She was not supposed to pass the ball that whole summer,” McCombs said—and it paid off, as she led the team with 19.1 points per game, won Big East Most Improved Player and helped Pitt make its first NCAA Tournament in program history.
The spotlight only got brighter after that, and Zellous thrived in it. She averaged 18.2 and 22.6 points per game in her final two seasons, was named a Third Team Associated Press All-America in 2008-09 and led Pitt to two straight Sweet Sixteens. As a senior, Zellous sealed the second Sweet Sixteen berth with two breakaways in the final minutes against Gonzaga and its sophomore point guard, Courtney Vandersloot—a player who would become one of the best passers in WNBA history.
“My redshirt sophomore year, I was like, Okay, I’m actually kind of good at this,” Zellous recalled. “And then junior and senior year, I was like, Oh, snap, I could really possibly go to the WNBA for this! So I started taking it a little more serious, getting those 6am workouts with my assistants and just grinding, really, so I could be the best version of myself.”
As Zellous developed into a top player nationally, she also matured off the court and became a better leader—and did it all with unwavering enthusiasm. “She has a smile the size of California,” then-Pittsburgh head coach Agnus Berenato said in 2009, “and she really enjoys playing the game.”
That smile was especially wide on the afternoon of Apr. 9, 2009, when the defending champion Detroit Shock selected Zellous at No. 11 overall in the WNBA Draft. She could hardly believe her luck: Not only was she officially a professional and Pitt’s first-ever WNBA Draft pick, but one of her new teammates was the player she had always sought to emulate growing up, Detroit star Deanna Nolan.
“I’ll never forget that moment I heard I got drafted to Detroit,” Zellous said. “I was like, There ain’t no—excuse my language—fucking way I’m going here with my idol. There’s no way I’m about to play alongside of her … I was completely starstruck … It was just really a dream come true, and it was really crazy how that happened.”
Zellous was a quick study with the veteran-laden Shock, averaging 11.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in 2009 and making the WNBA’s All-Rookie Team. She started her first four games, then moved to the bench and promptly scored a then-career-high 13 points. She went on to score 20+ points six times that season, including 23 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Fever.
“Z came in and hit buckets and just was really comfortable,” said Katie Smith, her Detroit teammate who would later coach her with the New York Liberty. “… Never was afraid of the moment, even when she was a rookie.” Smith added that Zellous was known for her “nice, nice pull-up game” but did a little bit of everything for the Shock, from defense to rebounding to raising the team’s energy level.
Besides the pull-up, Zellous’ other bread-and-butter offensive skill was getting to the free-throw line. She attempted 181 free throws as a rookie, third-most in the league—but that was actually less than the goal the coaching staff had set for her of 10 attempts per game.
And with those free throws came a lot of dancing: “Every time I got an and-one, I did a dance,” Zellous told The Pitt News in 2009.
Zellous gelled just as well with her teammates off the court, foreshadowing a career in which she has befriended “who knows how many people in the league,” according to Smith. Zellous’ upbeat personality, humor, sarcasm and dancing were “a perfect fit” with the Shock, and she even performed her rookie duties—including picking up veteran Cheryl Ford’s dry cleaning—with a smile.
But the 2010 season brought a lot of change, as the Shock moved to Tulsa and players such as Smith, Nolan and Ford changed teams or exited the WNBA. Zellous felt unmoored and requested a trade, and Indiana swooped in, as Zellous’ performance in the Eastern Conference Finals was still fresh in then-general manager Kelly Krauskopf’s mind. “[She] torched us,” Krauskopf summarized years later.
Zellous would have some of her favorite years of her career in Indiana, and she now considers the circumstances that caused her to leave the Shock “a blessing in disguise.” She initially played a similar role as she had in Detroit, as a slasher and high-energy player off the bench, and was indispensable in Indiana’s run to a WNBA championship in 2012.
“I immediately think of her … as a big-shot type person,” former Indiana head coach Lin Dunn told The Next. Among those big shots were a game-winning 3-pointer against the Seattle Storm in August 2012 and a season-saving, buzzer-beating jump shot two months later, when Indiana was down 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Connecticut Sun.
“[Briann January] picked up the loose ball, flipped it to [Zellous], one dribble, boom,” Dunn said, “and she hit her patented jump shot and we win the ballgame … and then we went on to win that series and went on to win a championship.”
That championship was especially meaningful for Indiana for several reasons: It was the first in franchise history, got Fever legend Tamika Catchings an elusive title and came even though observers had counted the Fever out. “We were, I would say, like the Tune Squad … kind of a team that came out of nowhere and people that nobody else expected to really contribute,” said Erlana Larkins, who played with Zellous in Turkey and then with the Fever after Zellous convinced her to accept a training camp invitation in 2012.
“Everything just hit us all at once, whether it was injuries, we couldn’t get it together, we couldn’t close out a game,” Zellous said. “But … we stayed together, we kept grinding, we kept getting better.”
The injuries pushed Zellous into a bigger role, as she became a starter and nearly doubled her shots per game from 2011. She also played about 50 percent more minutes, in part because she was versatile enough to play all three guard positions and defend bigger players in the post.
Zellous continued to expand her game with the Fever and overseas, most notably adding the 3-point shot to her arsenal. In 2013, she was named an All-Star and won WNBA Most Improved Player after averaging a career-high 14.7 points per game on 34.8 percent shooting from behind the arc. In 2015, she was even invited to play against the Harlem Globetrotters as a guest member of the Washington Generals—seemingly the perfect setting for her unmatched combination of basketball skill and enthusiasm.
“To this day … she has the smile and the hype and the excitement and she [plays] with so much passion,” Catchings told The Next. “And it’s not just passion for herself, like when she does something good. You watch her … when one of her teammates does something good, how she responds. It hypes up her and it hypes up the rest of the team.”
Catchings became a mentor and close friend of Zellous’, with Catchings helping her younger teammate harness that energy and passion to focus on the task at hand. In return, Zellous kept Catchings loose and never hesitated to hold her accountable.
“You know how people come into your life and they make such a huge impact that you never really take the time to think about, When was the first year that I met her?” Catchings said. “Because I feel like now when I look back, she’s been in a lot of the most important things that have happened with the Fever …
“Z is somebody that will always be in my family, no matter where she is … because [our relationship] became more about family than it became about teammates.”
That love and appreciation for Zellous was evident not only from Catchings, but throughout the Fever organization. Larkins said that she and Zellous were always joking around and pulling pranks, becoming such close friends that teammates referred to them as a single entity, “E and Z.” And Dunn, who’s been a college and professional coach for five decades, said that Zellous will “always be one of my favorites.”
After six seasons in Indiana in which she accumulated the eighth-most win shares in team history, Zellous signed with New York in 2016. She averaged 9.7 points per game in three seasons in New York, just above the 9.4 per game she had scored in Indiana, and also incrementally increased her rebounds, assists and steals. Smith, who was an assistant coach and then the head coach in New York, agreed that Zellous’ 3-point shooting was her most improved skill from their Detroit days, but Zellous took and made fewer threes because the Liberty wanted her to focus on driving to the basket.
Zellous also made an impact in the locker room, not only by lightening the mood and bringing the team together, but also by sharing her championship experience and leadership with a franchise looking for its own first title. Former Liberty star Tina Charles, who is now Zellous’ teammate again in Washington, told the media this season that Zellous taught her “how to be relentless [and] how to be always engaged on both sides of the court.”
Charles continued, “Z always raised everybody’s level when we were in practice … [Indiana] played very hard and that’s something that she brought over to me, just accountability. Z knows she could hold me accountable. … And she’s just great. I mean, I don’t have anything else to say; she’s just great.”
Another former teammate, Kiah Stokes, was in her second WNBA season when Zellous arrived in New York and said that Zellous was a mentor and “like a big sister” to her, both in the WNBA and when they played together in Turkey in 2016-17. According to Stokes, Zellous’ WNBA journey molded her into the player she is today:
“She’s a dog, and I mean that in the best way. She plays with a chip on her shoulder. She goes hard, she’s intense, she’s aggressive, she wants to win, she’s very competitive. She brings a sense of leadership; she’s very vocal. She’s just one of those tough players that [has] been through everything. She’s had to fight to get to where she is and … she’s solidified a [WNBA roster] spot. So that’s my dog for life.”
By the time Zellous signed with Seattle in 2019, the whole league knew her as a player you love to play with but hate playing against, a player who is aggressive and tough on the court but gregarious and approachable afterward. She was looking for a veteran-laden, winning team not unlike Detroit and Indiana—though she didn’t get quite what she’d envisioned because Seattle leaders Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart missed the season due to injury.
Yet Zellous remained the same positive, high-energy player, sliding into the backup point guard position and working as hard as ever. Then-Storm assistant coach and current head coach Noelle Quinn recalled Zellous’ grin as she did ball-handling drills before every game and said it was “a joy to really work with her.”
Zellous wasn’t on a WNBA roster in 2020, so she spent the summer working even more on her 3-point shot—motivated in part by her doubters. “It kind of makes you angry [in] a sense, like, I can shoot,” she said in April. “… I know I still have a lot in the tank to give. So I just put the work in.”
It paid off last winter, when she averaged 23.8 points per game for Cankaya Universitesi Ankara in Turkey on 53.0 percent shooting from the field and 34.3 percent from behind the arc. She also added 8.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists, continuing to demonstrate the all-around game that has stood out in the WNBA. Her stellar performance drew interest from multiple WNBA teams, but when Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault called, she said, it was a “no-brainer” to join the 2019 champions.
At age 34, Zellous isn’t having her most productive scoring season, averaging just 3.6 points per game for the Mystics on 32.4 percent shooting. But her 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks seventh in the league, and she has provided a steady, veteran presence both off the bench (in 13 games) and in the starting lineup (5 games).
“I think she’s had a good year,” associate head coach Eric Thibault said last month. “… The best thing about her, I think, is that she’s willing to play any matchup we’ve been willing to give her. She’s not afraid to play some four and play against other teams’ post players. She’s also been a de facto point guard at times, so I would say her versatility has been a real blessing … She can kind of help glue a lot of [things] together.”
The Mystics have also relied on Zellous as a defensive stopper, including against the Dallas Wings on June 26. With the Mystics trailing by 16 points, Zellous started the second half and promptly stole the ball from Dallas point guard Moriah Jefferson for a breakaway layup. By the time Zellous subbed out with 3:15 left in the third quarter, the Mystics had cut the lead to five.
“She has a big impact, you know?” Charles said after the game. “Shit, I wish we utilized her more. I know Shavonte. She’s going to get stops. She takes her assignments personally, especially on the best players. To me, I think she should be a coach when she’s done playing. She’s so defensive-minded.”
Zellous’ “fluent sarcasm,” dancing, jokes and many pranks have also helped combat the malaise that can come with injuries and losing streaks, both of which have plagued the Mystics this season. “Z’s just like a constant comedy,” said forward Theresa Plaisance. “I don’t think there’s a time that Z takes things too seriously. … Every time we communicate, I’m typically laughing.”
“She’s the one that makes us smile all the time. She lightens the mood in the locker room,” added veteran point guard Leilani Mitchell. “And then she’s always ready to come and play. So she’s been great to have. I think definitely, especially when we go through these hard moments, if people are stressed and there’s injuries or when we were losing those games consecutively, she was always the one to lift us up … So [I’m] very thankful for her.”
“With games, you can be so tense sometimes, and … that’s when everything kind of is stressful,” Zellous said. “But when you’re loose and having fun and enjoying the moment, that’s what makes the game a little bit more fun. So for me, I’ve always been [that] type of player. I love to dance; I love to have fun so we can take moments to just relax sometimes.”
In fact, the only thing about Zellous that divides the Mystics is her game-winning shot in the Eastern Conference Finals nine years ago. That shot sunk a Connecticut team that featured Charles and both Thibaults. “We’re still mad about that shot you hit,” Eric Thibault told Zellous on a road trip to Connecticut this season.
Zellous might be able to make it up to them with some big plays down the stretch for the Mystics, who are currently clinging to the final playoff spot. But she is willing to play whatever role the team needs, big or small, and is grateful to be in her 12th WNBA season. She has had no major injuries in her career and credits her longevity to “how you take care of your body, your mind and your soul,” on and off the court. Sleep, yoga, spin classes, lifting and the hot and cold tubs are all part of the formula for success that she has honed over the years.
McCombs also pointed to Zellous’ ability to fit in on any team as a key component of her success. “You don’t get that longevity without doing some things right in the locker room,” McCombs said. “… You see the smile, but it’s more than that. … She has connections with people. They’re sincere; they’re real. She loves really hard.”
Whenever Zellous decides to call it a career, she is considering becoming a coach or working in criminal justice, the field she studied in college. Either way, she has established an identity within the sport that will serve her well afterward: leader, competitor, hard worker, high-energy, enthusiastic, fearless. It’s remarkable how consistently people who know her mention these things, and she is uniquely and universally beloved.
“She’s definitely somebody you don’t forget. Extremely memorable,” Catchings said. “… She has an infectious personality, an infectious smile … You want to be around people like that.”
“You only get to coach those players every so often,” McCombs said. “… I haven’t had a player grow like that, to the level that she’s at right now from where she started. … [She went from] this ornery, silly, goofy, immature kid, even as a redshirt freshman in college, to being the mature consummate professional that’s still smiling.”
And when you combine that identity with all the skills she brings on the court, it’s easy to see why she has played more games than just about anyone in the world’s most competitive women’s basketball league.
“Everybody needs a Zellous on their team,” Dunn said. “… Everybody needs a Zellous.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.