The South Carolina Gamecocks (15-0, 3-0 SEC) are off to a spotless start to the 2022-23 NCAA season, making it through a tough non-conference schedule unscathed and carrying that success through the beginning of SEC play. The defending champions have looked perhaps even more impressive than when they went 36-2 and won their second national title. They are a well-oiled basketball machine that the rest of the country is still trying to figure out.
The Gamecocks’ recent success under head coach Dawn Staley has been largely characterized by dominant physical play, led by 2023’s presumed No. 1 overall draft pick, center Aliyah Boston. It’s reflected in the statistics; no team in the country defends and rebounds like South Carolina, and it’s made the No. 1 Gamecocks favorites to successfully defend their title come March.
There’s more to South Carolina than elite frontcourt play, though. Senior guard Zia Cooke, who joined the Gamecocks along with Boston as a highly-touted recruit in 2019, has been a fixture in South Carolina’s starting lineup since her very first collegiate game, and thus has made an impact on a program that has gone a combined 108-8 in the past three-plus seasons.
Cooke, a 5-foot-9 product of Rogers High School in Toledo, Ohio, quickly developed a reputation at South Carolina as a player who never shies away from taking difficult shots and has a knack for stepping up in key moments. As a senior, her game has become more efficient, which bodes well not only for the 2022-23 Gamecocks, but for Cooke, too, as the 2023 WNBA Draft inches closer and closer. Let’s look at what Cooke means to South Carolina and why a WNBA team may want to draft her in the spring.
Honors and statistics
Cooke, who committed to South Carolina as a McDonald’s All-American and ESPN HoopGurlz No. 4 overall prospect (No. 1 point guard) in the recruiting class of 2019, made an immediate impact on the Gamecocks program, starting in all 33 games she played as a freshman. Cooke averaged 12 points per game in her first season at South Carolina and led the Gamecocks in both 3-pointers (40) and free throws (79) made, earning SEC All-Freshman honors along the way.
Since then, she’s become an integral part of a South Carolina program that has been arguably the most successful in the nation. As the Gamecocks’ starting shooting guard, Cooke has made the All-SEC Team twice (2021 First Team and 2022 Second Team) and earned All-America Honorable Mention nods as both a sophomore and a junior. She was also named to the NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team twice (2021 and 2022), the latter honor earned during the Gamecocks’ most recent National Championship run.
Internationally, Cooke has been competing for USA Basketball since 2015, when she participated in team trials for USA’s U16 National Team. Since then, Cooke has won two gold medals with Team USA: one in 2017 during the FIBA Americas U16 Championship and another in 2018 during the FIBA U17 World Cup. Most recently, Cooke participated in team trials for the 2021 USA AmeriCup Team that went on to win gold in Puerto Rico.
Cooke’s scoring efficiency peaking during her senior season
While South Carolina has been an elite program under Staley for many years now, in recent seasons the Gamecocks have overhauled their identity as a team to focus on defense, rebounding and controlling the paint on both ends of the floor. Since 2019, South Carolina has ranked no lower than No. 15 among Division I teams in points allowed per 100 possessions (No. 2 during its championship run last season) while ranking no lower than No. 4 (No. 1 last season) in total rebounding rate (Her Hoop Stats).
This, of course, is spearheaded by the team’s highly physical frontcourt, with Boston, Victaria Saxton, Laeticia Amihere and Kamilla Cardoso giving the Gamecocks unrivaled size and depth up front. When the vaunted perimeter defense of Brea Beal is factored in, it becomes a nightmare to manufacture efficient offense against the Gamecocks, and while the team’s own floor spacing tends to suffer from the sheer number of players on its roster who excel below the free throw line, its overall size often makes up for this with unrelenting work on the offensive glass.
Where does a high-octane guard like Cooke fit into this type of team build? She’s often tasked with bailing out the Gamecocks’ offense if it can’t get the ball into the post, usually with 3-point shots or long jump shots off the dribble. It’s not always a glorious offensive role and, while Cooke is more than capable of making those shots — she’s led the Gamecocks in 3-pointers made in two of her first three seasons with the program — it doesn’t always lend itself to efficient individual offensive numbers, despite it theoretically being necessary to balance out an offense that is so reliant on low-post play.
As a senior, though, Cooke’s role has been optimized somewhat, and she’s responded with the best offensive performance of her career thus far. While the addition of Kierra Fletcher through the transfer portal and the return of Raven Johnson from injury have bolstered South Carolina’s guard depth and eaten into Cooke’s minutes (23.8), she’s shooting the ball at a higher rate than ever (20 field goal attempts per 40 minutes; 28.5 percent usage rate), and the results have been promising: Cooke’s effective field goal percentage of 50.3 percent is significantly higher than in years past, and she’s getting to the line more, too, posting a career-high free throw rate of 20 percent.
Combined with better decision-making (1.45 assist/turnover ratio — also a career-high), Cooke has become a player the Gamecocks can reliably depend upon to balance out their otherwise paint-heavy approach. Her offensive arsenal was on full display in South Carolina’s recent win over the Georgia Bulldogs: opportunistic scores in transition, open 3-pointers knocked down after patient relocation whenever the Bulldogs collapsed the paint and under-control drives that yielded 13 free throw attempts.
Highlights: Cooke scores career-high 31 points vs. Georgia
Again, context of the system in which Cooke plays is important. As a team that doesn’t extensively feature the pick and roll in its offense (per Synergy Sports, 6.5 percent of the Gamecocks’ possessions have come via the pick and roll ball handler, and only 1.5 percent via the roller), South Carolina needs its guards to be more selective in their own offense and know how to make themselves available when their teammates in the frontcourt inevitably draw extra defensive attention. Cooke’s improvement in these areas could very well mean the difference between low-scoring, grind-it-out games and blowout Gamecock victories.
Cooke’s development also bodes well for her as a pro. There’s never been any doubt about her skill with the basketball and the versatility of her jump shot, and she’s one of the best all-around athletes at her position, too; the prospect of her playing in a WNBA offense with a spaced floor and high-end guard talent is intriguing, to say the least, and will likely be a major reason why a team takes a swing on her in the 2023 WNBA Draft.
Watch her play
There are no shortage of nationally-televised games on the remainder of South Carolina’s schedule. On Sunday the Gamecocks will take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (ESPN2), and a week later they’ll play the Missouri Tigers (ESPN). The Gamecocks have another nationally-televised SEC matchup against the Tennessee Lady Vols later, on Feb. 23 (ESPN), and will renew their non-conference rivalry against the UConn Huskies on Feb. 5 (FOX).
All statistics and team records for the 2022-23 NCAA season are current through Jan. 7, 2023.