Shoni Schimmel knows Brittney Griner is 6-8. She knows she stands almost a full foot shorter, and was reminded of the fact when Griner swatted her layup in the first quarter of the WNBA All-Star game last Saturday.
But Schimmel wouldn’t back down, challenging Griner again in the fourth quarter. With her back turned to the rim, Schimmel threw up a dazzling shot over her head, just beyond Griner’s reach, for two of her All-Star game-record 29 points.
Over a year ago, she pulled that exact move on Griner to upset No. 1 Baylor in the Sweet 16 in what would become the highlight of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Schimmel’s life is much different now. The rookie for the Atlanta Dream isn’t a starter anymore. She isn’t the first, second or even third option on her team, either. She’s a spark off the bench, averaging 7.6 points and 3.7 assists in 20.3 minutes a night.
That’s why the move on Griner during the All-Star game was refreshing. We were finally seeing Shoni ‘Showtime’ Schimmel fully in her element again; the creative, flashy playmaker we’ve watched cross women left and right since her high school days in Oregon.
She looked comfortable. She looked like she was in the middle of a pickup game, passing the ball between her legs and behind her back, and pulling deep threes without hesitation.
Earning MVP honors with 29 points (seven threes) and 8 assists after starting just two games this season, Schimmel broke through, leading the East to a 125-124 overtime win.
“It’s definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life,” she says. “For me to kind of never really play like that before and to do it at such big of a stage with all the greats there, I hope it makes an impact on what I can bring to this league.”
She held up the MVP trophy on national television. She was trending on Twitter. She has the WNBA’s top-selling jersey.
But now almost a week removed from the high of it all, it’s back to the grind for Schimmel; back to her role in Atlanta as a reserve.
It’s an unfamiliar position for Schimmel, the eighth overall pick in the 2014 draft, who has always been the go-to player on every team she’s ever played on. For the last four years at Louisville, she was one of the top college point guards in the nation.
Now, she’s adjusting to making the most of erratic minutes. Sometimes she plays 25 minutes, other times she plays seven.
“At first I tried not to worry about it. Just to sit there and go out there and play basketball and have fun,” Schimmel says. “And then it just kind of kept going and I just didn’t really know how to handle it. It’s really frustrating, but at the same time, you know, if we’re winning, I can’t sit there and be mad about not starting or not playing much because you know, hey, at least we’re winning.”
The Dream (15-7) comfortably sit at first place in the East. All-Star vets Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza are leading an Atlanta team eager to return to the Finals after making three appearances in the last four years without a ring.
Schimmel is doing her part whenever she can.
Though her shooting percentage is down (just 37 percent from the field), she’s posted double figures nine times, including three 17-point games. She’s also dished out seven or more assists six times, including a 10 and 11-assist outing.
“Whenever Shoni’s number is called, Shoni’s ready,” says Karleen Thompson, who recently took over Dream head-coaching duties when Michael Cooper left on medical leave. “She’s sitting right beside me all the time so I can see that. She’s always ready, she’s watching the game, she’s a student of the game, she knows what’s needed when she gets in there. She’s just always ready.”
So what’s keeping her from the court? If Schimmel can perform like she did in the All-Star game against the likes of Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, why can’t she see more time on her own team?
“Everyone knows that Coach Cooper sits on his defense. And that’s the one thing that Shoni has been working on, getting better at, to be able to come in and defend out there on the court. Her confidence is building in that. She’s working hard,” Thompson says.
“There are big things in store for Shoni’s future. Everyone can see that,” Thompson continues. “But that would probably be the one thing that I think that Shoni is really taking the time to get better at.”
Schimmel is specifically working on her one-on-one defense. She wants to be able to contain the elite players in the league, not just be able to break them down with a single crossover and get to the basket.
Every day she works on her agility, using ladders to develop more quickness to help with sliding laterally so she can better stay in front of whoever she’s guarding.
This isn’t the first time Schimmel has had to make adjustments. The same questions that followed her as she transitioned from high school to college ball follow her now as she adapts to the pros: Is she too ‘streetball,’ too ‘showy,’ to thrive at this level?
“A lot of people would say she’s not going to be able to be successful with the way she plays in college, there’s too much razzle dazzle, too much showboating,” says Schimmel’s former coach at Louisville, Jeff Walz. “But it’s not trying to change someone’s game, it’s just trying to adapt it to what you’re trying to do and what you can get the most out of that player and I think that’s what Shoni’s been willing to do.
“When she came here, we didn’t try to change her game, we wanted to just educate her. Know when to make the behind the back pass, know when to make the no look pass, or when to simply make a bounce pass. She was willing to do that and I think that’s why her game has continued to progress. We didn’t want to take away her flair, her charisma. That’s the thing that’s good for our game, and I don’t think Atlanta wants to do that either.”
In her first game back from the All-Star game on Tuesday, Schimmel played 31 minutes off the bench in a 112-108 double-overtime loss to the Lynx. She scored 17 points (including 5 threes) and had 8 assists.
Maybe the tide is beginning to turn for her. Maybe she’s inching closer to securing a more prominent role. But even if Schimmel didn’t play half as many minutes against the Lynx, she would probably still be in the gym working on defensive slides or three-point shots right now.
“I want to go out there and be one of the best,” Schimmel says. “This whole transformation to college to the WNBA has been crazy. I haven’t had much time to sit there and let it sink in with everything going on. I’m trying to learn everything, trying to sit there and do whatever I need to do to continue to keep growing as a player.”