WNBA: Former Irish standout Diggins winless early in pro career

CURT RALLO South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

ROSEMONT, Ill. — Skylar Diggins brought the ball upcourt, used a stunning crossover move to blast past an opponent Sunday evening, and drove in from the left side for a lay-up.

Minutes later, Diggins drove the baseline and dished to a teammate for a 3-pointer.

Those moments weren’t nearly enough to help Diggins and the Tulsa Shock in their WNBA game against the Chicago Sky.

Chicago pulled away in the second half for a 92-71 victory.

A two-time unanimous All-American for Notre Dame, Diggins ended her career in an Irish uniform setting program records for career points (2,357) and steals (381), among others. She is the only Notre Dame basketball player of either gender to have at least 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in her career. The former South Bend Washington High School state champion took Notre Dame to three Final Fours in her career, and brought Notre Dame its first Big East Tournament crown, along with two Big East regular-season titles.

Life in the WNBA for the 2013 first-round pick (third overall), however, has been different. Tulsa is 0-4, something Diggins has never experienced in her high school and college days.

Against the unbeaten Sky (3-0), Diggins scored eight points and had three assists and one steal.

“It’s obvious to see that we’re struggling,” Diggins said. “I think we’re getting better every day. The biggest thing is, we have to get healthy. Every time we get somebody back, we lose somebody. It’s just about staying healthy. The record doesn’t show it, but we’re doing some good things.”

Diggins said that she needs to take a bigger part in helping her team overcome adversity.

“I have to be patient, and I have to be a leader,” Diggins said. “I have to be better, taking care of the ball, distributing the ball, being more aggressive and picking up my defense a little more, too. I have to take some pressure off the post players and put some pressure on the guards. All around, I have to do more. That’s what happens when you have injuries. Everybody has to step up and do more. This team needs more from me as a point guard.

“I don’t think I’ve put together a really good offensive game. My teammates need me to be better. I’m trying to take care of the ball and get my teammates easy shots, so we can get our shooting percentage up. I have to be a point guard.”

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said that the 0-4 start has to be tearing up Diggins.

“She’s never lost three in a row, not in high school, not in college,” McGraw said. “She’s got to be really frustrated. I know she feels like the weight is on her shoulders as the point guard. She wants to know what does she have to do, and what can she do more. She just wants to win. She’s willing to do whatever it takes.

“Skylar will figure it out. It’s a different level, but you can see her leadership emerging. You see her in the huddles. She’s the one doing the talking. She’s doing so well. We’re really proud of her.”

Diggins took over a Tulsa huddle in the second half on Sunday when Chicago started to pull away.

“I was just telling them we can’t hang our heads,” Diggins said of her words to her teammates. “We were right in the game, and then we kind of got down on ourselves. I know we’re a young team and things are going to happen. We just have to be mentally tough, and that’s everybody. We have to all take accountability in everything that we’re doing. We have to stay positive. We can’t be hanging our heads and have bad body language. We have to stay positive. It’s a long season. We have to keep pushing.”

Tulsa teammate and former Stanford star Candice Wiggins, a close friend of Diggins, said that the former Notre Dame standout has to cope with more than learning a new system and helping a young team learn to win.

Although Diggins would rather defer to the league veterans, rookies Diggins, Chicago’s Elena Della Donne and Phoenix’s Brittney Griner are the focus of a WNBA campaign to give the league a popularity surge.

“Skylar is a special example,” Wiggins said. “I wouldn’t say she’s like the typical WNBA rookie. I would put Skylar in a category of her own. She’s really got a lot of eyes watching her, a lot of Twitter followers, a lot of that madness. I grew up in a different time. Twitter wasn’t cracking when I came out of college. We didn’t have to deal with that, with the media, the big hype, the Big Three. There was none of that. Skylar is a trailblazer and a torchbearer.

“There are so many factors that Skylar has to deal with, but absolutely she can handle it, and she does it with grace and dignity and poise. It’s a lot, but if anybody can handle it, it’s Skylar.”

Diggins, who carved out a reputation as a brilliant student of the game, saud that she will be able to understand what is needed of her.

“Absolutely, I can figure this out,” Diggins said. “It just comes with time. It’s not going to happen overnight with our team, with us just being together a little over a week and a half. We’re still just figuring things out. I think all of us are anxious to get one in the ‘W’ column.

“It is what it is. I think I’m making it harder than what it is. I just have to relax and play. I’m competitive. I just want to win.”

Diggins entered Sunday’s game averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 assists a game. She scored 15 points in her WNBA debut against Atlanta, on May 25. She dished out 11 assists in her second game, May 27, against Washington.

Tulsa’s losses include two in overtime. The Shock have been hampered by Tiffany Jackson-Jones missing four games with a stress fracture, Nicole Powell missing two games with an ankle injury, and Candice Wiggins missing one game, also with an ankle injury. On Sunday, Elizabeth Cambage, who averages 18.7 points a game, was sidelined with an injury.

“I don’t think we’ve even had a full team practice, not with all 11 players,” Diggins said. “You have to control things you can control. People are out, everybody has to step up. Right now, that’s what we’re doing with this young team. While we’re figuring it out, it’s good to get that experience. Maybe some people are down, other people get to step in and play bigger roles than coach expected them to. It’s a learning process for all of us. It’s a learning curve for everybody coming in, trying to figure things out. Our attitude and effort have been good so far.”

Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg believes that Diggins has been put in a tough situation.

“We’ve thrown her in the fire,” Kloppenburg said. “There’s obviously a big learning curve coming out of the college game. You’re going up against bigger, quicker, stronger players every night. Skylar is a tough competitor. There’s still a lot to learn about the pro game at both ends of the floor. We love her heart and her competitiveness. We’re working with her a lot on her screen and roll game. She’s a very coachable player. She’s going to be a good one. Point guard is a difficult position to put a rookie in, and we have the youngest team in the WNBA.”

Wiggins, in her fifth season in the WNBA, said that she believes Diggins has the skills to thrive in the WNBA, and that the Shock will learn to win.

“It’s funny,” Wiggins said. “We’re just building our team. We’re all new. We have players who have never played together before. Some teams have been playing together a long time. Keep watching us, and people are going to be really excited about us. There are growing pains, but I’ve been there before, with Minnesota, and we ended up winning a title. I’ve seen it go from being the bottom to the top.

“Skylar is the most competitive person I know. She wants to be great. It will happen with experience.”

Tulsa Shock rookie and former Notre Dame standout Skylar Diggins drives to the basket during Sunday¿s WNBA game against the Chicago Sky.