Amanda Zahui B. is 'A superstar in the making'
The 2015 second overall draft pick will be a "cornerstone" for the Liberty in 2020 and beyond
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UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT/USA - July 11, 2018: New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B (17) warms up before a Liberty vs Sun WNBA basketball game at Mohegan Sun Arena. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
When Holly Rowe introduced the New York Liberty’s Amanda Zahui B. on Tuesday’s team sponsored LGBTQ+ Sports Activism Panel, the center’s jaw dropped. In one moment, a neutral but attentive facial expression had become a toothy gape. A smile equally wide and bright. She was humbled and even a tad bit confused by what she had just heard.
A day later she still wasn’t sure what to make of it.
The Next: [Rowe said] and this is superstar in the making, Amanda Zahui B. And I stopped and I was like, oh that’s really interesting. I could explain why I think that’s interesting…
Amanda Zahui B. : Please do…
The Next: I wanted to know what your thoughts and reactions were to that comment. What did you think it meant?
Zahui B. : I want to hear yours first.
In past month or so, Amanda Zahui B. has been ubiquitous. Between marching to demand racial justice, appearing on Swedish television, and lending her voice to multiple New York Liberty Pride related panels, all of the exposure hasn’t necessarily led to a rigorous discussion of who Zahui B. is and how her career trajectory has, at last, positioned her on a team that needs her exactly as she is.
In 2020 it is expected that the Swedish center will have an increased role, potentially expanding her portfolio on the court and building on the moments of brilliance that she exhibited in 2019. While that could mean an opportunity to score more or achieve higher marks in a variety of statistical categories, those aren’t the first goals she has in mind when she arrives in Florida next month. The 26-year-old “young vet” understands the gravity of this moment, which is one that doesn’t revolve only around her, but around all of her teammates who have something to prove as well.
According to Head Coach Walt Hopkins, Zahui B. enters 2020 as a roster “cornerstone”
For Walt Hopkins, Amanda Zahui B. and her expansive skillset was always a major part of the plan that helped Hopkins land the job.
“Anything that I talked about in terms of the roster and in terms of system, even in terms of leadership, Zahui has always been a part of the discussion from the very beginning,” Hopkins told The Next. “And again, it's the versatility of her on-court skill set, but in addition, it's the intangibles.”
Now, what exactly does Zahui B.’s versatile skill set look like? She’s a 6’5 big who can score on the inside and on the outside. She can pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop. She can post up, shoot a set-three and she can fade away outside of the key. And not to mention, she’s a shot blocker, something that she was especially known for during her days in college at Minnesota. In her two years playing as a Gopher, she once recorded a game with 11 total blocks, and during her final season, she averaged over four blocks per contest.
Now for her “intangibles.” According to Hopkins, he has observed Zahui B.’s “attention to detail,” how she “buys into” the people around her, and her emotional and intellectual intelligence. She’s interrogative and someone who’s not afraid to gain clarification on the “New Era” playbook. ( She’s also an avid reader who will be starting a virtual book club with young women in the Brooklyn area.)
Speaking of how the Liberty are going to play in 2020 and beyond, Hopkins didn’t necessarily want to quantify Zahui’s usage rate, but rather emphasized that the way New York will play won’t revolve around one person, which has been the Liberty’s modus operandi for the past six years when Tina Charles was the team’s consistent main attraction. But what he could reassure was that the Swedish center should feel a new sense of comfort this season, an agency “that she has yet to feel in the league.”
“I know for a fact how we plan to use her and so I can say confidently, just going forward, that she's going to be a big piece of what we do on both ends of the floor,” he said. “I mean she's one of the people on the team who kind of makes the way that we want to play possible… she's definitely one of the pieces that I think is gonna help us go not just from a systematic standpoint, but also from her heart and her will and her voice.”
Uncasville, Connecticut/USA - Aug. 01, 2018: New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B (17) during a WNBA basketball game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Connecticut Sun defeated the New York Liberty 92-77. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Zahui B.’s emotional and social intelligence matter, too, for the second-youngest roster in the WNBA. Hopkins sees her as someone who the younger players (including the six rookies) will feel comfortable to lean on. In a Zoom interview with The Next, she discussed how she’s bringing rookie Kylee Shook, a big with a very similar skillset to Zahui’s, out of her shell.
“I was talking to Kylee and she was like, ‘No, I'm really shy’,” Zahui B. said. “I was like, are you? Because we be talking.”
Zahui B. also has a great understanding of how human beings want to be treated, and that seeps into her leadership style.
So it's like not a one-way street where me as a young vet, or you know in a leader role is like, this is how we're gonna play basketball. Y’all have played basketball your whole life. Y’all all played in great schools at a high level. Let's learn from each other, because it's never fun just like… I've been in the league and this is how we're gonna do it. No, I can't play without you, you know. I need to know what you're good at, what you're uncomfortable with. So I think that it's not me just telling them what to do. I will never do that. I'm not that kind of person.
She mentioned how number one overall pick Sabrina Ionescu asked her if when they finally meet up in person, if Ionescu could show Zahui B. some defensive strategies that Kobe Bryant had passed onto her.
Zahui B.’s response: “Hell yeah.”
Zahui B.’s mentoring of younger players extends beyond the Liberty’s six rookies. She appeared on the 2020 rookie class orientation. A focus of her advice to the youngest cohort in the W included an introduction on the ins and outs of using the platform of a professional athlete. It wasn’t that scholastic but rather was quite honest.
While racial injustice around the world has given particular salience and necessity to athletes speaking out, Zahui B. contends that it’s not easy.
“So it's not always like, I love it, I love using my platform,” she said. “It's vulnerable. It's hard because you will have all kinds of different reactions, but if you stay true to who you are and what you really believe in and allow yourself to gain more knowledge then it's just gonna be, it's gonna become normal tweeting.”
Becoming a “Young Vet”
The road to clarity and comfort in this league was one that the former Minnesota Gopher couldn’t have predicted after being drafted second in the 2015 WNBA draft. It’s inconceivable to imagine recent number two overall picks Satou Sabally, Asia Durr and Kelsey Mitchell receiving a little over 10 minutes of playing time per game in their first three seasons in the league. That was Zahui B.’s reality first in Tulsa, playing behind Courtney Paris and Plenette Pierson. And then once she was traded to New York, she learned and observed from the play of New York’s all-time leading scorer Tina Charles and current Las Vegas Aces Center Carolyn Swords.
Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones (35) boxes out New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B (17) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on July 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Until the short-lived Katie Smith era, Zahui B.’s game time exposure was limited. How does Zahui fit into such a leadership role if there are questions regarding if she’s had enough of on-court experience? Is she really a veteran? It’s a tough call. But that’s why Hopkins calls Zahui B. and her close friend Bec Allen “Young Vets,” a hybrid term that acknowledges both of their situations.
“It's really essential that they know that it's okay that they're still making young vet mistakes, and that they know that there's space for that and they're not expected to be perfect, just because they're some of the oldest players on the team,” the head coach said. “I'm not gonna expect some crazy level of performance from them, they're still learning. They're still finding their way.”
Who helped Zahui B. manage a cosine curve of a start to her professional career? When she was traded to New York, the self-deprecating thoughts of “I’m never going to make it” haunted her brain. But Zahui B. owes her development to the “positive humans” that “never let [her] relax.”
“They never let me slide, like I was never allowed to slack in practice with Tina [Charles], like never,” she said.
She recounted a moment when she felt particularly down and inconsequential, and Charles offered her another perspective. She expressed to Zahui that yes, she was invaluable and that she saw the game differently. The 7x all-star needed Zahui B. as another eye from the bench that could tell Charles how Brittney Griner was playing on the low post.
Even before arriving in New York, Zahui B. noted that L.A.’s Riquna Williams (who was also on the Tulsa Shock at the time) and Tiffany Jackson Jones, now an assistant coach for WBB at the University of Texas, were both people who didn’t let Zahui fall behind. They would say to her if “you’re gonna be an all-star, you have to keep pushing.”
Carolyn Swords provided a calmer, nurturing mentorship, but what Zahui B. valued most about her leadership style was how she still checked her when necessary. The New York center hopes that she can take parts of the advice and different leadership styles from each of her mentors and apply it to her new reality as a “Young Vet.”
“I am trying to… become that,” Zahui B. told the Next. “So for the players that might not play, be that leader and push them forward and just being positive, and those who play… I'm always gonna keep everyone accountable and making sure that no one slacks. If you play 40 or if you play zero, you know.”
Zahui’s goals while in “the bubble” aren’t limited to basketball
UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT/USA - July 11, 2018: New York Liberty center Kiah Stokes (41), New York Liberty guard Rebecca Allen (9) and New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B (17) before a Liberty vs Sun WNBA basketball game at Mohegan Sun Arena. Photo Credit: Chris Poss
Holly Rowe called Amanda Zahui B. a “superstar in the making.” But what if she’s more than that? Her skill set at both ends of the floor lends itself to a potential All-Star appearance, but there’s something about her and her goals that not all superstars possess.
In addition to potentially shocking the women’s basketball world and making the playoffs with such an inexperienced team, a serious goal of Zahui B.’s for the 2020 single site season is to make sure that she and her teammates take care of their mental health. She wants to make sure that “her family is cool.” And according to her head coach, that’s an earnest statement.
“And you get the feeling that when you're a part of her family or her, you know, group of people that she really trusts and cares about, that she's would defend you, as fiercely as anybody else in her close family.”
While it’s clear from testimony from Hopkins that Zahui B. would literally go into battle for one of her teammates, she also has learned the value in taking care of herself. She mentioned on the pride panel hosted by Rowe that she’s begun going to therapy and seeking solace in her journal.
“[My journal] has become my baby,” she said. “I talked to it like ‘hey how you doing,’ knowing it's not gonna respond to that. It's a way for me to just like let everything out.”
When asked about how her new experiences working with a therapist will help her transition to life in the bubble in Bradenton, she responded that she’s come to terms with a new sense of calm. She understands that her anxiety is very much a part of her and who she is, but now she has the tools that she didn’t have before to approach her mental health issues with a newfound maturity. She’s ready to face her anxiety how she’d attack a hard hedge on the hardwood. It’s a challenge, but not something Amanda Zahui B. can’t handle.
“Going in with that calm and just like, yo, control what you can control and be as great as you can be,” she said. “There's gonna be days where it's like, what the hell, and that's okay. Just talk to yourself, journal and, you know, so keep that calm. I think that's really something that I'm very appreciative about with this whole situation that I have found... I found that calm…”
Zahui B. also aspires to continue the fight against racial injustice around the world. Similarly to her teammate Layshia Clarendon, Zahui B. understands the opportunity that being in a bubble presents the league. The women of the W must be “very serious about making” their voices heard.
It’s been almost a month since Zahui B. made her voice known in a very vulnerable way. Her IGTV video entitled: “We Still Can’t Breathe” is a 13-minute exploration of her feelings reacting to countless innocent black people dying from police brutality and injustice. According to Zahui, she went back and forth on whether or not to be that vulnerable and share what she was genuinely feeling. She asked her friends, family and her agent, Allison Galer, if she should post it. Reflecting on the entire experience, Zahui B. understands that she’s not the only one who is vulnerable.
“It's okay to put yourself out there and have those open conversations because we gain so much from it,” she said. “And by having those conversations, we are making a change. You know, we planting small seeds, that there should be trees but they are seeds.”
Her video has just under 10K views and has shown people who are new to Amanda Zahui B. the essence of truly who she is.
Walt Hopkins told The Next that watching Zahui B. bear her soul to the world was incredibly telling about how strong of a person she is.
“I was thinking all of this as I watched her say everything she said on Instagram. I just thought man, it takes a really strong person to let themselves heal the way that Zahui does.”