Skylar Diggins having a sophomore surge in WNBA

South Bend Tribune

ROSEMONT, Ill. — A Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition photo shoot. Appearances at the Super Bowl, the NBA All-Star Game, the Grammys and Fashion Week. Broadcast stints with ESPN and marketing opportunities with Roc Nation, Nike and Sprint.

Former Notre Dame and South Bend Washington star Skylar Diggins embraced a jet-set lifestyle in her first WNBA offseason.

“It was funny, because people were asking me, after seeing all the stuff I did, ‘Do you play basketball anymore?’” Diggins joked.

Regarding the question about whether she was still hooping, Diggins has answered it with exclamation marks. On Sunday, the 5-foot-9 point guard scored a WNBA career-high 33 points, including six in overtime, to lead Tulsa to a 105-99 victory at Chicago.

Last week, she scored 26 against Seattle on her way to picking up the Player of the Week Award.

For all of the glamour after the 2013 season ended, there was twice as much grind for Diggins.

Whether she was in New York, Hollywood or New Orleans, Diggins was always close to a hoop. The only exception was the three days she spent in the British Virgin Islands for the swimsuit photo shoot.

“I kept how often I was working out and where I was working out low key,” Diggins said. “I didn’t want people to know what I was doing. But very quietly, I was putting my work in.”

Diggins, Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer, has made a quantum leap from her rookie season.

Diggins averaged 8.5 points and 3.8 assists a year ago, hitting only 33 percent of her field-goal attempts. This season, she is averaging 19.5 points and 5.6 assists and is shooting 45 percent from the field, pushing herself to the forefront for consideration as the league’s Most Improved Player.

Last season, the Shock finished 11-23, last place in the Western Division. This season, Tulsa is 5-7.

“I never suffered as much as I did last year,” Diggins said. “It’s hard to struggle.”

On Sunday, Diggins delighted several busloads of fans from South Bend with her improved play.

She took the opening tip, wove her way around two Chicago defenders and drove the lane for a left-handed layup.

Seconds later, Diggins took a pass and drove in from the right side, connecting on a right-handed layup as she was fouled to give Tulsa its second basket.

As time ticked down in the first quarter, Diggins directed traffic, positioning Shock center Theresa Plaisance for a screen. Diggins then slashed to the lane, pulled off a deft crossover move and hit a layup with 2.9 seconds left to give the Shock a 27-24 lead.

During the overtime, Diggins took command. A floater in the lane with 32 seconds left gave Tulsa a two-possession lead at 104-99 and finished the Sky. She has scored 20 or more points in eight of Tulsa's 12 games.

“Obviously, I wanted to get better in every aspect of my game, but one of my priorities was attacking and finishing with both hands,” said the left-handed Diggins. “That was a big deal for me, and now, in my game, you’ll see a lot of right-hand finishes, a lot of hard drives to the right and finishing in the lane.”

Diggins took advantage of screens by Courtney Paris and Glory Johnson to get open against Chicago, and then either drove for layups or knocked down jumpers. She finished 11-of-20 shooting (one 3-pointer) and sank 10 of 13 free throws.

“I was just trying to step up a little bit,” Diggins said. “My team needed me to be more aggressive on the road, especially with Riquna Williams being out, because she’s a big spark for us.”

First-year Tulsa coach Fred Williams said that Diggins, who thrived in a transition and drive game at Notre Dame, has excelled in his up-tempo system.

“Skylar was outstanding, and her game is growing each week,” Williams said. “The structure of the offense and the things I do complements the perimeter players, and she’s one who has really taken advantage of it.”

Despite her cross-country travels, Diggins spent time in South Bend and occasionally worked with the Notre Dame women’s team. She also hit the weights — hard.

“I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Diggins said. “That was a big emphasis in my offseason, because it’s very physical in the WNBA.”

Last season took a toll. Always a winner, Diggins took her teams to the pinnacle at each level on her way to the WNBA. She led Washington to the state championship game four times, winning the title in 2007. She led Notre Dame to three consecutive Final Four ap-pearances — including back-to-back runner-up finishes — and the school’s first Big East Tournament crown.

Tulsa is the youngest team in the WNBA, and there are still growing pains. But as Diggins emerges as a leader, the Shock are making strides.

“Skylar is playing great, and I think it’s a matter of her finding herself and finding her role,” said Johnson, a former star at Tennessee. “She’s really confident, and that was what she lacked a little bit.”

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw traveled to Chicago for the game and saw a different Diggins on the court for Tulsa than the one she saw a year ago.

“She looks a lot more comfortable, and she’s really attacking the basketball,” McGraw said. “She’s playing her normal game in that she’s making passes when they’re there, she’s pushing the ball in transition, she’s playing relentless defense and doing everything that she can do to help the team win.”

McGraw sees a bright future for Diggins and Tulsa.

“I think the team is responding to her leadership a little better this year,” McGraw said.

Curt Rallo: CRallo@SBTinfo.com

Twitter: @rallo_NDInsider

Tulsa's Skylar Diggins celebrates as the Shock pull ahead in a 106-99 victory over the Chicago Sky on Sunday at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)