Former Notre Dame players are thriving in the WNBA

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

Skylar Diggins-Smith hasn’t lost her touch despite sitting out an entire WNBA season, and plenty of other ex-Notre Dame players are showing theirs as well — including Arike Ogunbowale leading the league in scoring.

In all, nine former Irish are playing in the WNBA this year, with the regular season about two-thirds complete for most clubs. A 10th, Jessica Shepard, is on injured reserve with Minnesota as she recovers from a knee injury.

Diggins-Smith drained 6-of-8 on 3-pointers and 6-of-6 at the line on her way to a game-high 24 points in the Phoenix Mercury’s 94-72 victory over Washington on Friday night.

She sat out the 2019 season after having her first child that spring.

In her seventh active season now, the South Bend-raised basketball icon is averaging 15.7 points and 4.1 assists in 29.9 minutes per game while hitting 53.2% on 2s, 44.3% on 3s and 89.8% at the line.

Diggins-Smith is part of a club heavy in star power with Diana Taurasi (17.8 points, 5.1 assists) and Brittney Griner (17.7 points, 7.5 rebounds).

“She’s in great shape and she’s played hard,” Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello said Thursday by phone of Diggins-Smith. “I love everything about her. She’ll have a game where she thinks she could’ve played better, but that’s what I love about her. She’s the ultimate professional.”

Diggins-Smith, at 15.9 points for her career, was acquired by the Mercury in an offseason trade with Dallas.

“When you have a new team and a new system, there’s a lot to deal with,” Brondello said, “but I think she’s getting back in shape. She can still do more, but I think it’s coming as our team chemistry comes.”

Phoenix, 8-7 with two straight wins, entered Saturday sixth in the 12-team WNBA standings. Eight teams will make the playoffs.

The Mercury feature a pair of ex-Irish standouts, with Brianna Turner joining Diggins-Smith as the only two players on the team who have started all 15 games.

“She’s still learning the game, but she’s a good post player and does the little things that don’t show on the stat sheet,” Brondello said of Turner. “She runs the floor well and had 17 rebounds the other night, which shows her heart. I want her to shoot a little more.”

Turner’s at 63.8% from the field, which would lead the league if she owned enough attempts to qualify, but she’s just outside that rate at the moment.

“I always try to take good shots, but when you’re playing with great guards like Skylar and Diana Taurasi who are willing and able to find me, you should be leading the league,” Turner said Friday with a laugh. “They know where to get me the ball.”

Overall, Turner is averaging 6.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in her second season.

She arrived at Notre Dame in 2014, a year after Diggins-Smith departed.

“I knew her somewhat, being from the same school, but didn’t really know her on a personal level,” Turner said of her relationship to Diggins-Smith prior to this season. “She’s a really great teammate and one of the most passionate basketball players I’ve ever played with. It’s exciting playing with her.”

Three ND Aces for Vegas

Nowhere is Notre Dame’s stamp on the WNBA as prolific as within the Las Vegas Aces, who boast three ex-Irish players in Kayla McBride, Lindsay Allen and Jackie Young.

To boot, they’re coached by ex-Domer Bill Laimbeer.

Vegas (11-3) entered Saturday a half-game behind Seattle (12-3) in the race for the league’s No. 1 seeding in postseason.

McBride was averaging 11.6 points to rank fourth on a potent and deep club that is paced by A’ja Wilson at 20.3 points and 8.8 rebounds.

McBride, in her seventh season with a 14.7 career scoring average, headed into Saturday at 25.3 minutes per outing this year and was sinking her free throws at 90.4% clip.

Young, the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick in 2019, has become the Aces’ super sub with averages of 9.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 24.6 minutes going into Saturday despite not starting a game this season.

Allen, who had made 13 starts, was at 4.2 points and 2.8 assists in 15.9 minutes per game.

Dallas Duo

At 21.5 points a game, Ogunbowale led Wilson by 1.2 entering Saturday in the chase for the WNBA scoring title.

Not only that, but in the last two weeks, the second-year Dallas Wing guard has seen ex-Notre Dame roommate Marina Mabrey’s role on the team suddenly grow substantially.

Mabrey headed into the weekend averaging 15.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals in 27.7 minutes over her last six games. She had averaged just 6.4 minutes over five games prior to that and had not appeared in four others.

In those most recent six games, Mabrey had connected on 15-of-33 outside the arc and 18-of-34 on field goals inside.

Ogunbowale’s 21.5 points, meanwhile, are accompanied by 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals in 33.7 minutes per contest, all team-leading figures.

Dallas, however, entered Saturday at 5-10, a half-game behind Indiana for the final playoff spot. The two clubs were scheduled to play each other later in the day.

Fever fighter

Natalie Achonwa, besides being in her sixth WNBA season — all with the Indiana Fever — is on the executive board of the players association.

The ex-ND star was among five board members who appeared Thursday on ESPN to address the players’ decision to not play games on Wednesday and Thursday in response to the latest in a series of police shootings that have raised questions about race factors.

On the court, Achonwa headed into Saturday averaging 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game to go with a team-leading 51.6% from the field.

Seattle’s Jewell

Former Notre Dame standout Jewell Loyd entered Saturday as a key contributor on the WNBA’s first-place team.

At 12-3, the Seattle Storm stood a half-game ahead of Vegas and Los Angeles, each 11-3.

Loyd went into the day averaging 14.1 points, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals in 27.3 minutes per game. She was sandwiched between ex-UConn stars Breanna Stewart (19.7) and Sue Bird (10.1) as Seattle’s top three scorers.

Loyd is in her sixth WNBA season and has a 14.6 scoring average for her career.

FILE — In this July 13, 2018, file photo, Las Vegas Aces guard Kayla McBride drives against Minnesota Lynx forward Cecilia Zandalasini (9) during the second half of a WNBA basketball game in Minneapolis. The Aces had an adventure getting to Washington for their game against the Mystics on Friday night. (Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP, File)
7/15/2020: AP Photo/JOHN LOCHER Las Vegas Aces’ Jackie Young drives against the Washington Mystics during Game 4 of a WNBA playoff on Sept. 24, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale handles the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 14., 2019.
9/11/2018: AP Photo/ELAINE THOMPSON Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd, a former Notre Dame star, in action against the WashingtonMystics in Game 2 of the WNBAfinals Sunday in Seattle. Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd in action against the Washington Mystics in the second half of Game 2 of the WNBA basketball finals Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Seattle. The Storm won 75-73. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith goes up for a shot in front of Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during on July 25 in Ellenton, Fla.
Dallas Wings guard Marina Mabrey sets up a play against the Las Vegas Aces Aug. 25 in Bradenton, Fla.