- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Shavonte Zellous' smiling face appeared on the television screen during the WNBA All-Star Game, standing behind ESPN reporter Holly Rowe and WNBA President Laurel Richie, who were chatting about the direction of the league.
Zellous grinned and mugged and broke into a dance.
The Indiana Fever guard had no idea she was actually on TV.
"No, " she said laughing this week, long after the July 27 All-Star game. "We were in a timeout, so I thought they were in a commercial. I was just playing. And then I started seeing people on Twitter, talking about my video bomb and I thought, 'Oh my God.'"
Zellous' moment in the spotlight is an interesting mirror for her WNBA career. She has spent much of it in the background, and then this season, she has popped up out of nowhere to steal the show.
Zellous has capitalized on the injury situation that has plagued Indiana all season, getting the most significant minutes of her six-year career and making her most significant contributions.
The 26-year-old Florida native is averaging a career-high 15.0 points a game, which ranks second on the Fever behind star Tamika Catchings. Zellous is the leading candidate for the league's most improved award, having raised her scoring average from 7.5 points a game last season.
But it was Zellous' performance in the 2012 WNBA Finals that set her on this course. She averaged 10.5 points over 10 playoff games last season, starting five when Katie Douglas went out with an injury and was unable to return for the Finals.
"She stepped up big with some big buckets last year," Fever coach Lin Dunn said. "That's when she started to assert herself. And then coming into this season, we were down to so few people on the perimeter, I think she was just ready to establish herself as an All-Star guard."
Zellous said she was merely making the most of an opportunity.
"I took it and ran and I'm continuing to run with it," she said.
Zellous admitted that last year's postseason performance boosted her confidence.
"I think it prepared my mind," she said. "It was like, 'Wake up, you can do this game in and game out.' I made a conscious decision to go overseas and work on everything I could possibly work on, so that when I came back, it would not be a surprise."
Zellous came back a better 3-point shooter and a better defender. On June 8, she hit six 3-pointers against Phoenix to bust out for a career-high 29 points. But that game came in the midst of the Fever's seven-game losing streak that dropped them to a 1-7 start.
Douglas was hurt again and this was no way to defend a title.
"It was heart-breaking, but we have stayed together and we didn't let things frustrate us," Zellous said.
Zellous is averaging a team-high 31.8 minutes a game and is shooting better than 35 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. And she is becoming a target for opposing defenses in a way that she never had before.
"I feel like I'm starting to be recognized," Zellous said. "Now I just need to keep performing day in and day out."
Indiana has climbed back into the playoff picture in the East, at 11-12 and in third place in the conference race with 11 games to go. Zellous wants to play in as many of those as possible, but she has recently joined the list of the injured. Zellous missed the Fever's last two games with pain in her foot that has been diagnosed as plantar fasciitis.
Dunn believes it's an overuse injury that needs rest before the postseason push.
"Her minutes are up and she doesn't ever play half-speed," Dunn said. "We are trying to get it under control."
Zellous' story is of a player who has spent most of her career under the radar. As a high schooler, Zellous -- who played at three different high schools as her family moved around -- was lightly recruited before landing at Pitt, where she was a standout college player who didn't get national notice.
As a WNBA player, she has been a role player -- often playing something less than a starring role. Those days have changed.
"She's a blue-collar kind of a kid, and she's so versatile," Dunn said. "She's fit perfectly into our system and we are really lucky to have her."
Dunn calls Zellous a "high-energy" player whose positive attitude is contagious.
"It doesn't matter what we are doing, how tired everyone is, 'Z' is going to bring that smile," Dunn said. "Everybody loves being around her."
Zellous said she knows when it's time to get serious. And that time is coming.
"The game of basketball should be about having fun," Zellous said. "But I don't think anybody was laughing last year in the Finals because we were so set on what we wanted to accomplish.
"We were there to get what we wanted to get. That's my approach. I love to have fun, but I can flip the switch to serious. I think I do a pretty good job of that."
12dBonnie D. Ford