June 9, 2021 

Feeling in her prime, Skylar Diggins-Smith is shining for Phoenix

Diggins-Smith finding peace in herself and her play ahead of potential 1st Olympics

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Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith is averaging 22.2 points and 6.0 per game since Diana Taurasi’s injury. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Skylar Diggins-Smith can admit that there were times early in her basketball career when making the Olympic team for the United States would’ve been a “type of validation” for her.

But that’s not at all her mindset now, even with the Olympics six weeks away.

“I am who I am, I am who I’m going to be,” Diggins-Smith said. “I think when you just put the work in and you just focus on the process — wanting to get better every day, wanting to improve my game, wanting to win a championship in the WNBA, wanting to be better for my teammates — I feel very confident in my game and doing whatever I need to do for whatever team.

“But if I don’t make the team, that’s not the end-all, be-all for me anymore.”

In the funny way life has at working things out, it may be finding that peace in the unknown that is helping lock up the Olympic roster spot for Diggins-Smith, who has come out of an eight-month offseason on fire for the Phoenix Mercury.

Through Mercury’s first nine games, Diggins-Smith is averaging 19.7 points per game, the seventh-highest in the league as of Wednesday. She’s also sixth in the WNBA with 5.2 assists per game.

Along with Brittney Griner, Diggins-Smith has been a key reason why the Mercury are 3-2 in the five games since Diana Taurasi went down with a sternum injury. Diggins-Smith is averaging 22.2 points and 6.0 assists per game in that and was particularly crucial against the Chicago Sky on June 3, scoring 16 of her 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to lead the Mercury to a 77-74 comeback victory.

“Every time Sky got the ball in her hand, or she’s driving down the middle or just going to the rack, I just know something good’s going to happen,” Griner said on June 3. “Either she’s going to get the floater, the and-one or she’s going to lob it to Breezy for the alley-oop every time. It was probably maybe a couple of times when it didn’t roll our way, but I’ll take that.”

Diggins-Smith has now scored 20 points or more in four straight games, doing so despite opposing defenses key in on stopping her and Griner with Taurasi out. Even in the face of aggressive defenses, Diggins-Smith has responded with aggression right back, driving at the basket and drawing fouls to the point that she leads the league in free throw attempts (7.3) and free throws made (5.9) per game.

“I think she’s doing a really, really great job and has taken a little bit more ownership,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said. “Obviously, when Diana went out, there’s more responsibility on her hands. She’s facing a lot of aggressive defenses, and I think she’s getting used to that and how we can best play against that. But she’s made some incredible shots, and that’s all the work she did in the offseason, to be quite honest. She’s got her legs back under her.”

The Mercury have had three-consecutive games with big fourth-quarter comebacks, beating Chicago twice in a row after being down by 10 with 2:30 left on June 1 and winning in overtime after being down 13 with 7:30 left. Diggins-Smith led the charge back in both of those games and was key in Phoenix’s near-comeback against Dallas on June 8, scoring five straight points to help turned an 11-point deficit with 1:41 left into a 2-point game with 30 seconds left.

Despite the loss on June 8, it was another game where Diggins-Smith kept shining in the fourth quarter. She’s averaging six points per game in the fourth quarter alone, the second-most in the final frame in the league (only being Arike Ogunbowale’s eight points per fourth quarter). And while all of the fourth quarter comebacks surely is not how any team would want to play night-after-night, there’s a comfort level at those points in the game for Diggins-Smith.

“I’m very confident in my play-making in the fourth quarter,” Diggins-Smith said. “I’m not afraid of the moment, I’m not afraid to have the ball in my hands, and Sandy trusts me with the ball. So it’s kind of situational, [and] it could be some by design of us wanting to execute. But yeah, I’m not afraid. I want the ball in my hands. It’s no secret in the league.”

She’s also stepped up on the defensive end, too, even when tasked with the other team’s toughest guard assignment on the night. Diggins-Smith also tallied her 100th career block in the WNBA on June 8, no small feat for a 5’9 guard.

“What I love about her, I think her leadership has gotten better,” Brondello said. “She’s a great player on both ends of the floor — defensively, we put her on their best player and she really, really embraces that. Without Diana, we have less handlers, so the pressure’s on her a little bit more, but she’s handled it great.

“She’s had a great season to date, and hopefully it keeps going up-and-up.”

The accolades are plentiful for the Notre Dame alum. She’s a 4-time All-Star, a 4-time All-WNBA player, is in the Top 10 among active players in points per game (16.2, ninth), assists per game (4.9, third) and steals per game (1.3, 9) in her WNBA career. And Diggins-Smith mentioned that she’s been with USA Basketball “since I was a 14-, 15-year-old kid” and has played a total of 49 games wearing the red, white and blue, going all the way back to 2007. She’s won gold medals for Team USA in U18 and U19 competitions, at the World University Games and in the inaugural FIBA 3×3 World Championship in 2012.

But Diggins-Smith has now been a finalist for USA rosters twice, for the 2014 World Championships and the 2016 Olympics. She’s also been a frequent participant in Team USA training camps over recent years and was one of eight players who committed their non-WNBA time to Team USA in July 2019 in lieu of pursuing other professional opportunities overseas.

That was done with the 2020 Olympics firmly in mind, but we’re now rapidly approaching the one-year-delayed Olympic Games and there’s still some uncertainly over Team USA’s final roster, and there’s no shortage of great American guards, either. The guards in Team USA’s player pool include Diggins-Smith’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Ariel Atkins, Diamond DeShields, Chelsea Gray, Tiffany Hayes, Jewell Loyd, Kayla McBride, Arike Ogunbowale and others. Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum will also already be in Tokyo for the 3×3 team, too.

With Team USA only able to bring 12 players on their roster to Tokyo, no one’s spot is certain and it could feel like this season is a type of audition for all the potential players. While that may have worried a younger Diggins-Smith, the 30-year-old instead is enjoying the fruits of all of her hard work to get to this point.

“I’m very comfortable where I am,” Diggins-Smith said. “I feel like I’m in the prime of my career, I feel like I could play as many years as I already have, as many years in front of me as I do behind me. I feel great in this league and I’ve always had confidence as a player.

“[Team USA], that is what that is, I’m kind of just … it’s not even in my mind anymore. I’ve done all the work, I’ve done all the audition Imma audition. Now what you’re seeing is me trying to bust my ass to put the Phoenix Mercury in a position to win a championship.”

And it’s that mentality, and the level of play that’s come behind it, that has Brondello rooting for Diggins-Smith to be selected for the U.S. team, even though it would mean Brondello’s Australian team would have to deal with her.

“I hope Sky makes this team,” Brondello said. “I think she’s a handful to guard. Her athleticism, her ability to finish at the rim, shoot the three, but also, she’s an aggressive defender and they’re hard to play against. I’ll worry about that once we get there, but I think she deserves to be on the team — obviously I’m not the selector, but we’ll see what happens.”

Brondello’s right when she said “the Olympic break is going to be here before we know it,” as we’re down to just five weeks left before the break officially begins on July 15.

But, if she stays healthy and keeps up this level of play, it’s going to be difficult to envision Diggins-Smith getting any time off during that break. She’ll have a gold medal to try and go win.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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