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The fan favorite

Shoni Schimmel shows WNBA superstar potential


by: COURTESY OF ATLANTA DREAM - Shoni Schimmel, the former Franklin High sensation and Louisville All-American, is a favorite with WNBA fans and has been a productive first substitute for the Atlanta Dream as a rookie combo guard.Less than two months into her professional career, Atlanta Dream guard Shoni Schimmel is becoming an icon in professional women’s basketball.

On June 24, the WNBA announced that Schimmel leads all Eastern Conference guards in the fan voting for the WNBA All-Star game with 14,635 votes, more than double that of her closest competitor in the backcourt.

Schimmel has the third most votes overall, behind only 6-5 Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky and 6-0 Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx.

If the voting trend continues, Schimmel will be a starter in the WNBA All-Star game in Phoenix on July 19.

“I knew she was popular, but not this popular,” says Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper, a former Los Angeles Laker standout.

Schimmel, a 5-9 WNBA rookie, is in the sixth man role for Atlanta, which was leading the East through Tuesday with an 11-4 start,

3 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Connecticut Sun.

“Her play the first five or six games of the season really took the popularity over the rim,” Cooper says. “She showed that she could play at this level and be a high, high-profile player. She has potential to be a superstar.”

Schimmel, who grew up on the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation before playing prep ball at Franklin High, says she believes the majority of the votes for her are coming from Native Americans, many of whom travel to watch her play road games.

“Every place I go, there’s Native Americans,” Schimmel says. “I have fans everywhere and wherever I go. They’re traveling. I went to Texas recently, and people from Arizona were there. I said, ‘We do play in Phoenix; there’s closer games.’

“But people want to travel and come out and support me. It’s pretty cool that people do that.”

Schimmel, a former star at Louisville who helped the Cardinals place second in the NCAA Tournament two years ago as a junior, is humbled by how many votes she has received.

“It means a lot to know that my fans have my back and want to sit there and vote for me every day,” she says. “I’m thankful for them. As a kid, you watch people in the All-Star games and sit there and dream about it. For it to all be coming true so fast, it’s exciting.”

Schimmel, listed at 161 pounds, takes the responsibility of being a hero to Native Americans very seriously.

“Not many Native Americans get the opportunity to be in my position,” she says. “For me to embrace that and go with that, it’s been a lot of fun. I’m trying to teach (others) the right way and be a role model for them. I want to do what’s right for not only myself, but for the Native American people.”

While Schimmel already is transcending the game of basketball to a degree, it’s important to remember that she has only 15 pro games under her belt. Schimmel has started twice and been the Dream’s first substitute in the other 13 games.

She is averaging 8.5 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.87 turnovers in 22.1 minutes per game.

“Overall, I’ve been playing all right,” Schimmel says. “I still have a lot to give. The more and more we play, I’m feeling more comfortable.

“Every night you play the best player on their college team. In college, teams only had two or three players who were good. In the WNBA, every player is good, and you can’t take anybody lightly.”

While Schimmel primarily is playing point guard, she also has been playing shooting guard on occasion.

“In college, I played both,” she says. “I understand that as a point guard I’m looking to pass the ball a little bit more and as a 2 guard I’m looking to hit the open jumpers when I get the ball.”

Schimmel never has come off the bench before, but she is getting used to the way to approach it mentally.

“It’s different,” she says. “I don’t mind it. It’s my role right now. I look at what my sister (Louisville guard Jude Schimmel) did in college coming off the bench. I embrace it, because right now for me to be the sixth man, it’s kind of cool. I’m learning as I go through every day.”

Atlanta is predicted to contend for the WNBA championship this season. That gives Schimmel the luxury of not having to be the go-to player on the team.

Cooper wants Schimmel to use this season to adjust to playing in the WNBA so she can become a starter in the near future.

“We drafted her to be a backup point guard with the potential to start,” Cooper says. “This is a learning portion for Shoni. After we get through this season and do what we’re supposed to do winning a championship, she’ll be ready to step in and start full-time.

“Her role right now is to learn and to get better, to understand what I as a coach want from her as a point guard. We also want her to get really familiar with the style of play at the WNBA level.

“She’s done a tremendous job of that. She’s hit her rookie struggle at times during games, but no one has lost confidence in her. And the most important thing is Shoni hasn’t lost confidence in herself.”

The biggest thing Cooper wants to see Schimmel improve is her defense.

“We’re trying to win a championship, and teams need to do defensive things to win a championship,” Cooper says. “Her defense isn’t up to par yet. But, it’s getting better.”

by: COURTESY OF ATLANTA DREAM - WNBA Atlanta Dream coach Michael Cooper, a former Los Angeles Lakers mainstay, says rookie guard Shoni Schimmel has star quality that he wants to develop, partly by teaching her to cope with the highs and lows of professional basketball.Cooper, who played an integral role on the “Showtime” Lakers, compares Schimmel to Magic Johnson, one of his former Laker teammates. Cooper says he is happy that he got Schimmel onto his team so he can help her reach her potential.

“I’m glad that I got the chance to get Shoni and show her how to do this as opposed to just letting her live and run like any other coach who doesn’t understand her potential for this league would,” Cooper says. “It’s about being a professional all the time and living through your down times as well as the times that you’re on top.

“I’m trying to get her to an even keel. Offense comes and goes. I want to get her to the point where, when she’s 0 of 5 from 3-point range and 1 of 7 from the field, her confidence doesn’t get shattered.

“The WNBA is a high and low game. The key is to play at a consistent level. That’s where I can help her.”

Away from the court, Schimmel is enjoying the life of a professional athlete. She has signed an endorsement deal with Nike and loves that her passion also is her job.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Schimmel says. “It’s a lot better than college, because in college you have to go to class all the time.

“I’m just enjoying life. Basketball takes up a lot of my time.”

Schimmel says she has fit in well with her teammates.

“We all get along,” Schimmel says. “We all have that common goal to win a championship. They’re all nice and genuine people. They’ve been very

welcoming.”

The Atlanta Dream players live in the same apartment complex, but each player has her own apartment. After growing up with seven brothers and sisters, it is a bit strange for Schimmel to live by herself.

“It’s been different,” she says. “Especially because I’m used to having so many brothers and sisters running through the house. Even in college, I had three roommates.”

To palliate some of the loneliness, Schimmel has gotten a dog, a 4-month-old Morkie (a designer dog that is a cross between a purebred Yorkshire terrier and a purebred Maltese) named Knox.

“He keeps me company,” Schimmel says.

For any other 22-year-old woman from an Indian reservation in Eastern Oregon, there might be a concern that the transcendence from basketball player to icon would be too much to handle.

But Cooper, who will serve as East coach in the All-Star Game, says that Schimmel is not just any 22-year-old from the rez.

“Shoni is a young lady who understands how to handle all of it,” he says. “She’s a very, very humble person. I’ve seen that in the situations when there’s tons of people there to see her after a game. She’s very respectful of the fans.

“I don’t ever see her getting a big head. She’s got great, grounded support from her family. And I’m not going to let her get too big-headed. But we do have to let her ego build a little bit, because she has potential to be a superstar in this league.”