Nobody's Fool: In a Family of Athletes, Diamond DeShields May Shine Brightest

Natalie Weiner@natalieweinerStaff WriterJune 22, 2018


When Diamond DeShields is playing her best, it's a little like watching Vin Diesel hit the nitrous in a Fast and Furious movie: Everyone else on the court looks like they're in slow motion.

In part, that's because the Chicago Sky rookie really is fast—see, for example, a recent play vs. the Seattle Storm when she had the ball and, in her eyes, an open lane. Never mind that Alysha Clark and All-Star Breanna Stewart stood between her and the basket. DeShields dribbled past Clark and hit the layup even with Stewart draped over her; the rest of the players briefly slowed, looking a little stupefied.

That's the other thing that can make it seem like DeShields is the only player on the floor: "Diamond-watching," as Angie Hembree, DeShields' high school coach, calls it. Her teammates then—and occasionally now—would stop in the middle of games to see what otherworldly move she'd execute next, forcing Hembree and the other coaches to call a timeout to remind them to "stop Diamond-watching and play!"

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Diamond DeShields taking off in 3..2.. https://t.co/5MkdVhnXiB

Since DeShields was drafted No. 3 overall in April, WNBA fans have gotten a taste of what it's like to Diamond-watch—to see the kind of athleticism that elevates even the most mundane plays into feats of effortless grace. "I try to explain it to people, and they're like, 'You're just saying that because she's your sister,'" says Texas Rangers center fielder Delino DeShields Jr., Diamond's older brother. "But when she's on the court, it's just different—her athleticism, her body control, the way she moves the ball."

Diamond, like her brother, would appear to be made for athletic success: Their father, the elder Delino, played Major League Baseball for 13 seasons, and their mother, Tisha, was an All-American heptathlete at the University of Tennessee. But where her brother and father were able to jump directly into professional sports, Diamond had to wait, prompting her to make choices that sometimes seemed confusing to those watching. As a result, the guard's career has been plagued by the P-word: potential. Put another way, it's how coaches and scouts hedge when describing why someone's extraordinary gifts may not pay off thanks to a perceived lack of focus.

"There was a lot of noise surrounding me and who I am as a person," Diamond tells B/R. "Everyone knows what I can do on the court. But throughout the past few years, the decisions I've made have come with some kind of negative opinions and viewpoints. I feel like it had an impact on where I ended up." For Diamond, though, those decisions were all made in pursuit of the only destination that has ever mattered: the pros.

Now, despite some setbacks along the way—ones she almost certainly wouldn't have faced if she were a man—she's finally part of the family business and on the stage she's been waiting for her whole life. All that's left is is to show everyone why she belongs there, one jaw-dropping, impossible-to-take-your-eyes-off play at a time.

"She basically wanted to do everything that her brother could do," says Delino Sr., a bunting and baserunning instructor in the Cincinnati Reds farm system, of his daughter. "You could see the competitiveness in her really early."

One of his favorite memories is when Diamond's mother tried to sign her up for cheerleading—she was around five. In no time at all, she'd accessorized her cheerleading uniform with a baseball glove on one hand and a football in the other. "I was just like, you know you're wasting your time, right?" he remembers, laughing. "She's not going to be holding pompoms. She's going to be playing ball."

He was right. When Diamond was four and Delino Jr. was six, they were on the same coach-pitch Little League baseball team; when they weren't at practice, they were shooting hoops in the driveway of their home in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross or hanging out at the ballpark with their dad.

"My dad never made me feel like my dreams weren't as big as my brother's or his," Diamond says. "He always supported me and gave me a way to pursue what I wanted to do." From a very early age, that meant playing sports—especially baseball.

"He couldn't have stopped me from playing baseball even if he wanted to," she says. "I used to tell him, 'Let's go outside and play catch, let's go hit in the batting cages.' Even after I was no longer on an organized baseball team, I was still always working on footwork drills and hitting in the cages with him and my brother. I just love baseball." (Among her first activities as part of the Sky was throwing out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game.)

When she did play baseball, Diamond was the only girl on her team, and she still remembers winning home run derbies. "During those times she could hit just as well as the boys on the team, and she had a better arm than a lot of them," her father says. Ichiro Suzuki—a fellow lefty batter—is still her favorite player. "I just love his style of play," she says now. "He shook the game up a lot because he brought a whole different culture to it." Eventually, Diamond switched to softball "because, you know, I was a girl, and I couldn't play baseball anymore," but it didn't stick.

Diamond DeShields not only loved to play her father's sport as a kid, she proved to be a good hitter on whatever teams she was on as a kid.
Diamond DeShields not only loved to play her father's sport as a kid, she proved to be a good hitter on whatever teams she was on as a kid.Photo courtesy of the DeShields family

"Given that my dream was always to be a baseball player, it just felt like I would have been selling myself short a little bit," she says. Watching Mo'ne Davis in the 2014 Little League World Series, DeShields thought about what could have been. "My dad was like, people don't know you were Mo'ne Davis before Mo'ne Davis!"

It wouldn't be the last time she had to take a detour because that's the way things are for women. But it couldn't prevent her from turning heads thanks to her unmistakable athletic talent. Ask almost anyone who's watched her play, and there's a story.

When she was playing shortstop on her high school softball team, she was asked to stop throwing so hard because, in Hembree's words, "they couldn't find anybody to catch the ball." Then there was the time she left the opposing team in tears during a church camp game of dodgeball. Or the afternoon she wowed her Team USA basketball teammates before a game. "Someone had a football, and we were messing around before a game," says DeShields' Team USA coach, Jen Rizzotti, a former WNBA player who is now the head coach at George Washington University. "She was throwing, like, 50-yard spirals. She looked like an NFL quarterback, at 15—it was like, 'Oh my God.'"

No matter the sport, Diamond stood out. Even tennis, which she reluctantly turned to when it became clear she couldn't keep playing baseball. "My first tennis practice, I was out there hitting all the balls over the fence like in baseball," Diamond says, laughing. "I was just swinging the racket because I was mad, and I didn't want to be there." Eventually, though, she grew to love the sport, even going to Florida with her dad to train with Richard Williams—the father of Venus and Serena Williams.

"Mr. Williams made me cry a few times," she remembers. "He was really intense. He made me realize at a young age that you really have to love what you do to attain the level of greatness that the Williams sisters have, that LeBron [James] has. You don't get that success unless you love it."

Diamond getting a tennis lesson, though she admits she wished she could have been playing more baseball instead.
Diamond getting a tennis lesson, though she admits she wished she could have been playing more baseball instead.Photo courtesy of the DeShields family

Once DeShields came around to basketball in middle school, her athleticism was immediately obvious there as well. "I've never seen a kid like that," says her high school AAU coach, Omar Cooper, who first saw her play around that time. "She'd get the rebound, and it was like she took one big step and was at the other side of the court laying the ball up. Smacking the backboard on a layup, in the sixth grade. I said, 'She's going to be the No. 1 player in the country, right?'"

By age 14, Diamond was 6'1"—already four inches taller than her brother. By age 15, she was the youngest player on the USA Basketball U18 team; at 16, she was the youngest player on the U19 team (DeShields has five FIBA gold medals). "She was ridiculously athletic and had potential through the roof," Rizzotti says.

There's that word: potential. Rizzotti saw a lot of it, but also a lot more. "She could completely dominate a game for five possessions in a row, and that was my biggest problem with her—I wanted her to do that all the time," Rizzotti says. "Things came easily to her because she was so athletic, and I was challenging her to work harder."

Storied UConn coach Geno Auriemma compared DeShields' potential to that of former Huskies star Maya Moore. "There was never any doubt she was the kind of talent coming out of high school that could have kind of a Maya impact on a program," Auriemma told reporters in 2015.

"She could have played in college with the moves she was doing," says Hembree, who also coached Moore. "Physically, she's always been ready. It's just the mental part had to catch up."

When her former AAU coach, Cooper, thinks back to Diamond's high school days, he gets audibly frustrated. He recalls her go-to retort when he'd implore her to play to her full talents, even when it was clear that she could succeed without doing so: "Coach, it's not that serious!"

It's also true, however, that for Diamond, not performing to her full potential was a matter of degree. No matter the perceived lack of effort, she was so much better than everyone else that the wins kept coming: dunks, three high school state championships, countless player of the year awards and ultimately a No. 3 national ranking among recruits. "She could play point guard to center," Cooper says. "Whatever the team needed, she would embrace it."

As a teenager, Diamond would enthrall basketball coaches with her ability to dominate a game while also frustrating them with a perceived lack of focus at times.
As a teenager, Diamond would enthrall basketball coaches with her ability to dominate a game while also frustrating them with a perceived lack of focus at times.Photo courtesy of the DeShields family

One time, Cooper took his team to John Lucas' basketball camp in Texas after a few weeks of intense workouts. "When Diamond works out, she's on another planet," he says. "It ain't even close." She was so dominant on the girls' side of the gym that Lucas called her over to do one-on-one drills with the guys—not just any guys, but top-50 recruits. She kept winning: three times, four times, five times. The gym was on its feet.

"She always wanted to be some sort of professional. That was kind of just part of us from birth," Delino Jr. says. "We used to write contracts for ourselves for fun. Very unrealistic—mine were like, five years, $500 million—but it's cool thinking back about how we were teenagers hoping to live this dream and now, we get to."

What Diamond really wishes is that there had been an option for her to go one-and-done in college, like the guys do. After all, she watched her brother start his professional career at age 17, and others soon after. According to her, there was "never a plan B" for either her or her brother; she just had to wait longer to put her plan into action.

"Seeing my guy friends be one-and-done, I was just like, this is not fair," DeShields says. "I'm not the only women's basketball player who feels this way. There are so many other girls who have pro ability after their freshman year who, because of the way the system is set up, have to stay in school for longer."

The reality of the situation, though—as DeShields acknowledges—is that WNBA salaries are so much smaller that it's also much more practical to make sure you have a college degree before going pro. "I'm really not an advocate of staying in school for four years," she concludes. "Get your degree, of course, but once you get it, go ahead and make that move."

That process, of getting her degree and eventually making moves, was supposed to be simple: Diamond's mom went to Tennessee, and the school's legendary women's basketball coach, Pat Summitt, had been recruiting Diamond since she was in sixth grade. Then, just before the start of DeShields' junior year in high school, Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"It broke my heart," says DeShields. "Pat Summitt was just one of those people you view as invincible—you don't expect those types of people to pass, let alone get sick. When I saw Pat, it was like parts of her were missing—like I was watching her disappear. We had built a really good relationship, to the point where I felt like she was already my coach. Losing that was devastating. I was so sure that I was going to Tennessee, and then everything changed."

She ended up alongside her good friend and current WNBA player Allisha Gray at North Carolina, where she earned national freshman of the year honors. She surprised many, though, by then transferring to Tennessee and sitting out a season as a redshirt. It was a decision that perplexed some of those paying attention to her career, but for DeShields, it was a necessity—UNC's athletic department was embroiled in scandal, and she had long felt the program was a poor fit.

DeShields took Tennessee to the NCAA tournament in both of her two years at the school but felt a chance to play professionally in Turkey was too good of an offer to not leave leave early.
DeShields took Tennessee to the NCAA tournament in both of her two years at the school but felt a chance to play professionally in Turkey was too good of an offer to not leave leave early.Wade Payne/Associated Press/Associated Press

"She had this phenomenal freshman year at North Carolina, and the expectations for what she could do at Tennessee were so high," Rizzotti says. In two seasons with the Volunteers, DeShields averaged 15.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game and helped guide UT to an Elite Eight appearance and a second-round showing. "I think she took some heat for not being able to help them get to a Final Four," Rizzotti adds.

"[Diamond] wasn't the easiest thing to coach sometimes, and I think she knows it," says Hembree, recalling her experiences with Diamond. "But it wasn't because her heart wasn't there. I wish it had worked out different, because they'd be raising her uniform."

DeShields also struggled to stay healthy throughout her college career, playing through knee and ankle injuries her freshman year and missing games with thumb and neck injuries at Tennessee. But as much as anything else, she was coping with the nagging feeling that the whole setup wasn't fair. Why should she have to spend more time in school, stifled by the same arbitrary transfer requirements as the guys, only to earn a fraction of their eventual salary? She could see how the system had worked for the men in her family, and given all that potential, it seemed only fair that for her, there should also be profit.

Initially, DeShields had been set on returning to Tennessee to use her final year of NCAA eligibility. But after opting out of the 2017 WNBA draft and graduating with a degree in communications studies, something clicked—"I'm not getting any younger," as the now 23-year-old puts it. So she decided to go play in Cukurova, Turkey, a move traditionally reserved for players who have already started their WNBA careers. It made headlines around the women's basketball world—and provoked less-than-enthused reactions from Tennessee media. But for Diamond, going pro was "such a relief."

"Even though I was on the other side of the world away from my family, it was one of the best, best experiences that I've ever had in my life," she says. "It was a great unknown. People were like, 'Are you scared to go to Turkey?' I was like, 'No, I'm scared to stay here!' America is dangerous, to me," she concludes, alluding to the country's ongoing struggle with police brutality and systemic racism.

While in Turkey, she focused on basketball and basketball only, averaging 16.0 points and 5.8 rebounds a game—and finally, officially, was paid to play sports. "I remember when I got my first paycheck," DeShields says. "They paid me in cash, and I just dropped all the money on the floor and sat there and looked at it for like, an hour. It was like, wow, I'm really a professional athlete. I'm really doing this."

Unique as her path has been, DeShields has not made it alone. While she was leading Norcross High to state titles in Georgia while playing alongside and against future pros Lexie Brown (now with the Connecticut Sun) and Kaela Davis (Dallas Wings), as well as the Wings' Allisha Gray and the Las Vegas Aces' Dearica Hamby, current New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara was bringing the school state titles in football. The pair are still close: He attended the WNBA draft and flew to Chicago to attend her second game.

"He's just like, that guy for me," DeShields says. "All the big things that happen in my life, I want him to be there. Him being at the draft was like, a no-brainer: Mom, Dad, Alvin." Together, they've plotted going pro since their days at Norcross. "We talked about this," she adds. "Even when nobody else thought this was going to happen, we knew it would. "

Now, she's arrived in the WNBA, making a statement on the court as a member of one of the strongest draft classes in recent league history.

"There's a little bit of, 'Exactly what are we getting with Diamond DeShields?'" ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo told reporters a few days before the draft in April. So far this season, DeShields is averaging 12.6 points and 4.9 rebounds—but what Sky coach Amber Stocks sees, again, is potential. "You know I believe in you," Stocks told her a few days after her team selected DeShields with its first pick. "... There's a lot of noise out there. There's a lot of naysayers, haters, doubters. I have your back. I have your back, and I know you have mine."

"She's a smart player who is a sponge," Stocks says now. "She wants to absorb every piece of knowledge from her teammates, coaches and film." What she wants from Diamond is simple: "More consistency and shooting over 40 percent at the three-point line."

Hembree thinks Diamond is just beginning to show what she can do. "She was made for the pro game," Hembree says. "I got to coach A'ja [Wilson] in the McDonald's All-American Game, and there's no doubt that [the top three draft picks, Kelsey Mitchell being the second] are three incredibly talented women. But I really believe this is going to be Diamond's platform."

While the Chicago Sky are struggling early in the WNBA season, DeShields has played well, averaging almost 13 points in 25 minutes per game as a rookie.
While the Chicago Sky are struggling early in the WNBA season, DeShields has played well, averaging almost 13 points in 25 minutes per game as a rookie.Joshua Huston/Getty Images

Cooper says DeShields called him after her first game with the Sky, and the difference in her voice was apparent. "I just hadn't heard that excitement from her in a long time about basketball," he says. "She's healthy, she's feeling good, she's talking about the playoffs. It's just good to hear her happy." Still, Cooper is looking for her to take the next step. "She's accomplished everything she's accomplished never having said, 'I want to be the best basketball player in the world.' When she decides to do that, it's over."

Perhaps the only person without constructive criticism for Diamond is her dad: After a disastrous attempt at coaching (he characterizes himself as a "yeller" on the court) when she was in elementary school, Diamond relegated him to the stands. "That was my last time coaching her, ever," he says, laughing. "I'm Dad, and I try to stay in my lane. She'll ask me a question every now and then, and that's my chance to coach her up a little bit."

According to her, though, he has offered some invaluable advice off the court. "He just says, 'Do things your way, and don't let nobody punk you,'" Diamond says. "A lot of people know my dad as the guy who wore his stirrups up because he wanted to pay homage to the Negro League players, and there were people who didn't like that. But he never cared—he always did things how he wanted to do them, and that's one of my core values."

Doing things how she wants to do them has gotten DeShields this far. The only thing left is for WNBA fans to start Diamond-watching.