Watching a Chicago Sky game this season, it is easy to mistake Diamond DeShields for a veteran.
She slashes to the basket with confidence, sinks silky jumpers without hesitation, makes 85 percent of her free throws and plays solid defense. DeShields anticipates well and has the speed and athleticism to get to the right spots on the floor in time, usually before her defender arrives. The 6-1 rookie guard made her WNBA debut a month ago by scoring 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds, to the surprise of no one.
“For me, I’ve always been able to look out on to a court – say, in warm-ups – and pick her out,” older brother Delino DeShields Jr. said. “Her athleticism, the way she carries herself, makes her stand out.”
Thirteen games into the 2018 season, and despite her team’s struggles to win, DeShields is an integral part of the Chicago franchise. She is putting up 12.3 points per game – second-most for the Sky and 26th in the league – and averaging almost five rebounds in 24.8 minutes an outing. The No. 3 draft pick has scored in double-digits in seven match ups, including a career-high 25 points, and has started every game but one.
Chicago coach Amber Stocks said DeShields’ impact on the team was immediate.
“Her relentless attack to the rim and her relaxed approach to perimeter shooting has forced opponents to adjust their defensive schemes, opening the court for her teammates to make plays,” Stocks said. “Because of Diamond’s style of play, our team has made dramatic improvements in our ability to score from the free throw line.”
Yet, from the lens of DeShields, who comes from a family of athletes and has always had high expectations for herself, she has plenty to work on.
“Right now it’s less of a basketball emphasis than it is being a pro and taking this more like a job,” she said. “Coming to work every day, trying to increase my value. I want to keep my job. It’s the WNBA and there are not many jobs here, so each and every day you want to come in and make an impact and let people know you’re serious about this game.”
The road less traveled
If DeShields’ smooth ascension in the professional ranks was expected, nothing about the pathway for the gifted athlete, from a family of athletes, has followed a conventional script. The self-described “unicorn” has come to the WNBA in a way that is just as unique as the person she is.
As a child, DeShields tried just about every sport, from bowling to golf to softball to archery, and her talent was evident in whatever she attempted. Her father, Delino DeShields Sr., was a Major League Baseball player, and she grew up around sports. She was also heavily-influenced by her mother Tisha, who was a star heptathlete at the University of Tennessee. DeShields had high aspirations from the beginning.
“At a young age, I wanted to be the number one girl athlete in the world,” she said. “I didn’t know what it would consist of, but I always felt like there was no one who could do what I did when I was young.”
DeShields’ first sport love was tennis, and for a time she trained with Richard Williams, father to superstars Venus and Serena Williams. She contemplated making tennis her focus, but ultimately, the team aspect of basketball won her over, as it better suited her personality.
“I started to envision my future and what I wanted to be as an athlete, and the impact I wanted to have as an athlete, and I decided I could do more playing basketball,” DeShields said. “I loved the exposure I was getting. I was playing USA Basketball, and getting recruiting interest.”
Her original goal remained the same.
“When it came time for me to pick a sport, I still wanted to be the best to play this game,” DeShields said.
She took her skills to Norcross High School, outside of Atlanta, and guided the team to three state titles during her tenure. DeShields was part of a celebrated North Carolina recruiting class that made an immediate impact there. In what might be her most memorable game as a Tar Heel, DeShields stood on the sidelines at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, waiting to inbound the ball. As dozens of Blue Devil fan arms extended towards her while they heckled, DeShields yawned to show her indifference.
Her confidence, she said, came quickly after she started playing sports.
“I was blessed with athleticism, but when I look at some of my siblings, there are some sports they just can’t play,” she said. “There are four of us, and I am the most athletic out of all of us.”
Her self-assurance in basketball also came from experience, which began in a rec league when she was nine years old.
“I was playing with guys, and destroying them,” DeShields said. “They always had to say boys are better than girls, but growing up I was better than the guys. So I knew there wasn’t a girl who could be as good as I was.”
But her brother said she has never been one to cross the line from confidence to arrogance.
“She knows the talent that God has given her, and she has always done a good job using her platform as an athlete to help and inspire other girls,” Delino DeShields said.
After one year at North Carolina, DeShields transferred to Tennessee, where expectations were high that she would guide the program back to national prominence. Yet, despite being the leading scorer for the Lady Vols for two years, the team didn’t advance past the Elite 8. After initially pledging to return for her redshirt senior year, though she had already earned her degree, DeShields decided a year ago this week to forego her last season of eligibility.
She went to Turkey over the winter and played for Cukurova, where she averaged 16.5 points per game. Not only did she feel that the professional experience helped develop her game and prepare her for life in the WNBA, the time away gave her perspective.
“The biggest thing my college experience taught me was patience, because throughout my college career, I was injured,” DeShields said. “It was being patient with myself and understanding that this chapter of my life wasn’t going to go as I planned, but there are always lessons to be learned from it.”
She said she has no regrets.
“You can always say maybe I shouldn’t have transferred….but that would have changed this whole process,” DeShields said. “I’m happy where I am, and the only reason I am where I am is because of everything that happened before this. With that being said, I don’t regret anything. I’m thankful for my experiences in Chapel Hill, my experiences in Knoxville, no knock to either school. I love everything about everything I’ve gone through.”
Stocks visited DeShields overseas and had built a relationship with her before the draft.
“Diamond has shown success at all levels of competition, including her experience with USA Basketball,” Stocks said. “Taking time to get to know both the person and the player in a variety of settings proves to be a wise approach to player acquisitions.”
The 4-9 Sky’s season has been challenging, as starting center Stefanie Dolson missed seven games with an injury, leaving the rest of the team to pick up the slack. They snapped a six-game losing streak Sunday with a win over the Phoenix Mercury. DeShields scored 16 points.
Former Tennessee All-American Candace Parker, whose Los Angeles Sparks team hosted Chicago two weeks ago, said DeShields is going through a rite of passage for rookies.
“The toughest part about your rookie year is first that you’re adjusting to the play, but also, everybody is adjusting to you,” Parker said. “The first six games they don’t know what you do, and the next six games you have to adjust to the way they’re adjusting to you.”
Parker said DeShields has unlimited potential.
“I have no doubt she’s going to be an amazing WNBA player,” Parker said. “She reminds me of a bigger (Deanna) Tweety Nolan in the sense of her quickness and her explosion. When she locks down defensively, she’s capable of being defensive player of the year. Her quickness, her ability to get her own shot. The moves she’s pulled in the first third of the season have been unbelievable.”
DeShields is targeting her scoring right now.
“My pick and roll offense is what I’m working on,” she said. “When I’m coming off (a screen) I’m usually trying to get the pass that’s going to lead to a score, but within this offense it’s making the easy pass. I’m looking for my teammates, but at the same time I don’t want them to (have to) take care of the ball.”
Stocks calls DeShields a “competitor with a highly intrinsically-motivated psyche.”
“Diamond can see the court very well; she can see the spacing and placement of all 10 people on the court,” Stocks said. “As she continues to study and asses the game on a higher level, her ability to envision one, two or three steps ahead of the action will flourish.”
Family ties, and being a unicorn
On the surface, DeShields’ off-court persona doesn’t seem much different from her game face. The 23-year-old smiles judiciously and speaks steadily, without an overt amount of voice intonation. But her eyes are filled with warmth – especially when speaking about her family, with whom she is close – and in particular Delino, who plays Major League Baseball for the Texas Rangers.
“Everyone in my family is really close, and me and my brother especially,” DeShields said. “Just growing up and being part of each other’s journey, closely. I used to sit in the dugout at every one of his baseball games with his teammates, shag balls in the batting cages or be on the field with him. I was really a part of it. It makes us have a special bond.”
Their mother has referred to them as twins, though they were born two and a half years apart. And among the things they shared was feeling the weight of high expectations.
“For our whole lives, people had identified us as being our dad’s kids, as if we didn’t have to work for anything,” Delino DeShields said. “We got our athleticism from both our mom and dad, but that only gets you so far.”
Eventually, the siblings had an adult discussion.
“We talked when we were 14, 15, and agreed that we didn’t want to be defined by our parents,” he said. “After that we both made it a point to be great at whatever we do, whether in practices or games. We supported each other having a mindset to be greater.”
The DeShields were reunited in Chicago last month, just prior to the start of the WNBA season, after not seeing each other for a year. They smiled and embraced, and then DeShields threw out the first pitch before her brother’s team took the field.
“We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, but that’s our life,” Delino DeShields said. “I’ve been gone from home since I was 17, and she was always with travel ball.”
Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby said DeShields’ warmth comes from her mother, who took Hamby in for her senior year in high school so she and DeShields could play ball together.
“They both have very big hearts,” Hamby said.
DeShields also has a great sense of humor, explaining that she “never takes anything too seriously.” And she is so even-tempered that she can deliver the funniest story about herself with a deadpan expression.
“I’m not narcoleptic, but I can go to sleep anywhere,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I fell asleep outside on a rock one time. The people called the police – they thought I was dead – outside the Barnes and Noble. I was just so tired.”
Hamby said her friend has often been misunderstood.
“People see her intensity on court and correlate that to off-court, where she can seem nonchalant,” Hamby said. “They’d say, ‘she seems so mad.’ I’d tell them, ‘no, she’s just chill.’ Diamond just goes about her business.”
DeShields has referred to herself as a unicorn in the past because she is “just uniquely made.”
“I just feel like there’s never been another person like me,” she said.
She has never been troubled by those unnerved by her confidence in sport.
“Anyone who’s confident doesn’t care,” she said. “That’s what confidence is.”
DeShields said the WNBA is like a family, and credited Sky veterans Allie Quigley and Alex Montgomery for mentoring her.
“They’ve helped me a lot in continuing to build my confidence up,” DeShields said. “Allie always tells me that ‘nobody can guard you,’ and ‘you can get by anybody in this league.’ And I’ve never really had that from a teammate. It’s nice to have that from your peers.”
When her playing career is someday said and done, DeShields wants to make a mark.
“I want to be one of those people who changed the game and made it better,” she said. “I want to make it better for the next generation.”
See also: One-on-one with Diamond DeShields