After a Lynx win, coach Cheryl Reeve usually will award a game ball. The honor is figurative, not literal; can you imaging how much space Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus or Sylvia Fowles would have needed to house all those balls through the years?
After Saturday’s victory over New York, Reeve awarded two. Both were to second-year players. And both were to players who had come off the bench and recorded career highs in points.
Cecilia Zandalasini and Temi Fagbenle.
Fagbenle scored seven points in 10-plus minutes. Zandalasini scored 13, going 5-for-6 from the floor, 2-for-3 on three-pointers and snagging three steals.
Now, this doesn’t signal a changing of the guard. Fagbenle will continue to play behind defending MVP Fowles, though her performance moved Reeve into playing both on the court together at times Saturday.
Zandalasini’s minutes have risen more dramatically of late because of Seimone Augustus’ hamstring injury. Zandalasini has scored in double figures in consecutive games. When Augustus returns — she practiced Monday and said she felt confident she’d play Tuesday against Dallas — minutes will be harder to find. Still, Zandalasini’s play on both ends of the court Saturday has Reeve determined to find time for her, even if it means playing Moore at power forward more.
Zandalasini, who the Lynx signed last year in August, is starting to come into her own.
“Ceci was big,” Reeve said of the 6-2 forward’s play Saturday. “You guys probably enjoyed her making shots. But she took on some defensive assignments. Those are some active perimeter players that run off screens. Ceci was really persistent at being hard to play against.”
Zandalasini, 22, has had an interesting path from her native Italy to the WNBA. She went undrafted in the WNBA. But Lynx assistant James Wade, who coaches overseas in the fall and winter, had been following her for some time. The Lynx signed her last year, willing to let her acclimate to the league and not willing to risk another WNBA team signing her first.
She spent much of last season watching from the bench. Her playing in Italy, where her team won her league, meant she missed most of the Lynx’s training camp this spring. But she is making up for lost time.
“I just take my opportunity,” she said. “I just go in and try to be as good as I can. I try to play defense, first of all. Try to remember the personnel. And then the offense will come. Of course, games like that give me confidence. I know it’s just one game.”
Zandalasini has one of the best shooting motions on the team, something her teammates noticed from the start. But her ability to guard both at the big guard and small forward position makes playing her alongside Moore a natural. Zandalasini was a team-best plus-21 in the win over the Liberty.
The league will figure out how dangerous she is when left open. The shots, if they continue to fall, will become more difficult to get.
But that shooting ability helps the Lynx space the court and make it more difficult for opponents to double up on Moore and Fowles. Reeve likes the idea of having two shooters such as Moore and Zandalasini together on the court. And Zandalasini’s ability to defend gives Reeve the confidence to do just that.
“That gives you two scorers, two shooters,” Reeve said. “Zandalasini has an athleticism about her. She has size. Every time we’ve gone back and looked at her matchup, who she’s gone against, either in a practice or a game, we’ve been pleased.”
Said Zandalasini: “I think I’m able to play good defense. If I do that I can add minutes. This is a journey. So, step by step, I just have to do my best every morning in practice.”
Her teammates have been watching her practice for a while now. Nothing she’s done has surprised anyone.
“You got a glimpse of what she could do [Saturday],” Augustus said. “She’s a great shooter. It’s been tough trying to tell someone that shoots, to shoot. When she has good, clean looks, and she’s aggressive, she’s one of the better scorers on the team.”