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Arizona point guard Shaina Pellington still trying to improve in final months of her college career

Despite some areas of weakness, the Wildcats’ starter at the one is still a top performer in the Pac-12 across a range of statistical categories.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 29 Women’s Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball starting point guard Shaina Pellington is heading into the final months of her sixth and final year of college basketball. She ranks in the top 20 in the Pac-12 in multiple categories both traditional and advanced. That doesn’t mean there’s not still work to do, especially if she wants to be a professional.

Ask Pellington and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes what those things are, and you get different answers. Both of them have a point, though.

“Free throw shooting, oh my God,” Pellington said with a laugh. “It’s like right now, it’s killing me. We work on that. Keep this in mind. For all the people that are like, ‘You need to work on free throws,’ we do. That’s what we do. Do you think we come to work every day and don’t work on the things we’re not good at? We definitely work on free throws, but it’s just like it’s a mindset. It’s just like sometimes you can psych yourself out, like when you put so much pressure on yourself to do something so well. It can be hard to execute that sometimes. There’s so much pressure, so it’s just getting out of your own head. It’s just hard. When you see yourself miss more than you want to, your mindset kind of shifts. It’s just like, ‘Okay, I have to make this. I have to make this, instead of I will make this.”

Barnes also acknowledged that many of her players need to improve on free throws. Arizona is dead last in the Pac-12 at 64.9 percent shooting from the line. That’s over four percent lower than No. 11 California. Only three players—Madi Conner (95.7 percent), Helena Pueyo (91.7 percent) and Kailyn Gilbert (73.1 percent) are shooting 70 percent or better from the charity stripe.

Because of her ability to drive to the basket, Pellington goes to the line more than anyone else on the team. She gets 4.4 attempts per game, almost a full attempt more than Reese’s 3.5 FTA per contest. That makes Pellington’s 56 percent success rate—ninth on a roster of 11 healthy players—a bigger issue for the Wildcats.

Barnes said that they are committing time in practice to improve everyone’s free throw shooting, but that’s not optimal.

“It’s not like we don’t work on it every single day,” Barnes said. “But, see, that’s the thing about this time of year. So, now you’re eating more practice time. That’s something we should be good at. That’s a concentration thing. So, it’s hard as a coach, but then it’s a fact of reality that we’re not good at it. So, you eat practice time to work on those things. As your program progresses, you’re not using practice time to do that. And that’s the thing...about championship teams. We have some stuff to improve, and we have time, and we will improve on it. But lots of things we’re focusing on now we didn’t have to do in the past. So that’s also accountability by them. Go take a hundred free throws a day on your own, but that’s not what happens. And so, like as a coach, you gotta do it and that’s practice. So, it’s a longer practice. It’s more on your legs like it’s a thing that players need to control a lot more.”

Despite the fact that she knows the entire team needs to improve shooting from the line, Barnes doesn’t view it as the most important thing her point guard can do for the team. In order to help Arizona as a team and move to the next level personally, Pellington needs to develop a specialty. Barnes thinks that specialty should be lockdown defender.

The coach sees the possibilities in her player. She was especially pleased with the defense Pellington played against Arizona State’s Tyi Skinner in Sunday’s rivalry win. Skinner averages 19.8 PPG, third in the Pac-12. Arizona’s defense, led by Pellington, held her to just eight points on 3-of-12 shooting (1 of 7 from the 3-point line) in the victory.

“The most important thing that she should give consistently is her on-the-ball defense,” Barnes said. “The best on-the-ball defensive play was last game. She has the ability to play like that. She has the ability to be like glue to anybody in the country. I mean, Skinner is pretty fast. She has to have the mentality and the want. And I think that’s what you’re seeing more of. I think she’s understanding that by her doing that, it makes us better. It makes our team defense better. It makes the player next to her deny harder. It slows down the offense. It’ll make us better defensively, but she has to have the mentality to want to do that. And so, I’m hoping after last game, the light bulb went on.”

The coaches have already used that game to help teach Pellington what she needs to do.

“She doesn’t realize that she wasn’t doing that before, so we showed her film,” Barnes said. “We showed her evidence, and she’s like, ‘Wow!’ So, I’m hoping that gives her confidence to do it because she has the ability. She has athleticism, she has the quickness, she has the strength. All the tools to be a dog defensively, but I think that’s the mentality that she has to get in. And if she wants to go pro and go to the next level, she has to do it.”

What was the difference in the ASU game?

“I think it was just an area of focus for me,” Pellington said. “I know that’s something that they’ve been really focusing on these last couple of weeks. Just upping the pressure. They always tell me, ‘You’re super athletic. You can cause havoc for anybody that you play against if you pressured more.’ So, I guess I feel like this game I really tried to pay attention to that and tried to put that into play this time.”

If Pellington can improve her free throw shooting and up her on-ball defense, it would only add to a game that is already impressive compared to her Pac-12 peers. She stands in the top 20 in the league in five different traditional statistical categories. She is top 20 in many more advanced statistical categories.

Pellington’s shooting percentage is fifth in the conference among players who sink at least three field goals per game. The 55.9 success rate is the highest in the league for a qualifying player who doesn’t play in the frontcourt.

She is one of only eight players in the Pac-12 who make at least five buckets per game and shoot over 50 percent from the field. Once again, she is the only guard in that group of eight. The fact that she is creating most of those shots herself rather than being on the end of a pass like a post player stands out.

Pellington is also fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.4. Her 1.9 steals per game once again place her fifth in the Pac-12.

She is responsible for 3.7 assists per game. The average is the same as Oregon’s Te-Hina Paopao and Utah’s Ines Vieira, but Pellington is ranked behind both on the Pac-12 leaderboard. That still places her ninth in the league.

She is eighth in the Pac-12 in free throws attempted, making the need for improvement in free throw shooting percentage even more glaring. However, because of the number of free throws she attempts per game, she still ranks 18th with 2.5 made free throws.

Pellington’s 12.6 points per game place her first on the Wildcats and 19th in the conference. The five made field goals per game are 17th in the Pac-12.

When it comes to more advanced stats, she is sixth in assist rate (26.1 percent), 13th in player efficiency rating (28.6), 14th in offensive win shares (3.0), 15th in steal rate (3.5 percent), 18th in win shares (3.8), 20th in points per play (1.00), and 20th in player offensive rating (118.9).

Four guards in the league have a turnover rate of zero percent. None of the four have played in more than eight games or for more than 6.5 minutes per game. After eliminating those four players, Pellington is ranked 13th among Pac-12 guards in turnover rate at 12.1 percent. The guards ahead of her are predominantly shooting guards. None account for as many assists as she does.

She makes these contributions despite not having the highest usage rate on the team or an especially high usage rate compared to her peers. When she is on the floor, the percentage of plays when she shoots, goes to the line or turns the ball over is 22.6 percent for the entire season. That ranks 36th in the Pac-12 and fourth on the Wildcats.

Her usage rate has dropped since conference play started. In Pac-12 play, it’s 19.8 percent. That’s seventh on the team, which can be a positive thing for a point guard. In Pellington’s case, that appears to be the case.

Her field goal attempts are down slightly from 8.9 overall to 8.1 in league play. Her free throw attempts have gone from 4.4 overall to 3.9 per game in Pac-12 play. She has dropped her turnovers from 1.5 for the season as a whole to 1.3 in conference play. Her assists, which are not part of the usage rate formula, have increased from 3.7 overall to 4.0 against Pac-12 opponents. All of this points to Pellington playing a more team-oriented game as the season has progressed.

What does Pellington think her most important contribution is?

“As a point guard, I take pride in the assist-to-turnover ratio,” she said. “That’s something that I think is really important—if you’re taking care of the ball, setting people up. But honestly, because I’m a person who is really competitive, I care about all categories and they’re all super important. It tells you how you’re literally performing. So, I care about points. I care about steals. I care about assist-to-turnover ratio. I care about if I’m rebounding, helping my post players rebound or not. So, I pay attention to all categories because I think they’re all equally important in different ways.”

Despite all of her positive contributions and high rankings in the Pac-12, Pellington is still the player most likely to be blamed when things go wrong for the Wildcats—and often even when they go right. She knows that, so she tries to take steps to keep it from dragging her down.

“You try your hardest not to look at it, but that’s not realistic,” Pellington said. “Let’s be real. But for me...I kind of look at myself. I’ve been doing this for how many years of my life, you know? The last thing I’m gonna do is sit here and listen to somebody who was never able to compete at half the level I was able to compete at. A lot of things go into play. At the end of the day, I feel like I take criticism as a compliment because people are paying attention. When people aren’t talking about’re probably not doing anything relevant enough for them to care about.”