September 9, 2022
“It validates the work I’m doing”: Diamond DeShields striving towards 2022 USAB roster
A change of roles expanded DeShields game into a potential Team USA roster spot
The Phoenix Mercury started the 2022 WNBA season with four Olympians on their roster. Among those were Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Tina Charles and Brittney Griner. Just a year ago, you would have thought at least one of those names would be among the players attending the USA Basketball training camp.
You would have been wrong.
The Mercury had just one invitee: Fifth-year pro and 2019 all-star Diamond DeShields. This year feels almost like redemption for the 2018 third overall pick. She came in with a whole new approach this year as her mentality turned focused and opportunistic.
“I think that being invited and getting cut is really not serving me anymore,” DeShields said. “I’ve overcome a life-changing medical experience that has kind of put a lot in perspective and, you know, to battle back from that and to now be back here at the most competitive women’s basketball training camp that you can be at, you know, I’m not taking it for granted.”
The USA Basketball women’s training camp is one of the most competitive for a legitimate reason. They have won every gold medal in the Olympic games since 1996. They also have won 10 FIBA World Cup gold medals, with its latest being in 2018.
DeShields’ journey with the red, white and blue didn’t start recently. It has culminated over the span of nearly a decade.
The first course of action took place in the 2010 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. The United States went up against Argentina, Brazil and Puerto Rico to get to the championship game. Their average margin of victory was nearly 56 points, including their 81-38 championship victory against Brazil. DeShields posted 10 points, seven rebounds, an assist and two steals in 14 minutes. These games had future WNBA talent running wild on the floor with players like Bria Hartley, Kayla McBride and Chiney Ogwumike alongside DeShields.
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She continued to climb in the USAB ranks, until being named to the USA National Team in 2019-20. However, in 2020, disaster struck. DeShields had a grape-sized tumor in her spine that needed to be removed. This caused involuntary tremors throughout her body and was heartbreaking for her friends and family. The surgery had doctors, and even DeShields herself, questioning if she would ever play the game she loved again.
One of her former Chicago Sky teammates, Stefanie Dolson, is also in this year’s USAB training camp. Playing with DeShields during this time, Dolson saw firsthand DeShields’ resiliency and how that carries over into her game.
“She had reached out to all of us, explaining what was about to happen. Then to see her recovery in the training camps and then go into the bubble, it was scary,” Dolson explained. “But it was also incredible to see someone like that just fight through it, to continue to play, us not really knowing the extent of … how much pain she was in or what she was really going through.”
How does that fight translate to the court?
That fight is something DeShields brings every single game. She showcased a 29.2% usage rate which was second in the league per Her Hoop Stats. Her sky-high usage rate allowed her to showcase her elite athleticism in transition. DeShields had the eighth most possessions in transition with 2.9 per game which puts her ahead of MVP candidates A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
Another underrated part of her game has been in pick and rolls. In the words of her head coach Vanessa Nygaard, she always described DeShields as the “sixth starter.” As the main ball handler, DeShields ranked in the top 12 of all players in efficiency with 0.947 points per possession, according to Synergy Stats. Her consistent improvements in this area have brought that number higher than all-stars Kelsey Plum and Alyssa Thomas.
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USAB head coach Cheryl Reeve saw DeShields at the 2019-20 training camp. Fast forward two years and Reeve saw those improvements come to fruition. She described DeShields’ play coming into this year’s camp.
“We’ve actually had Diamond in other competitions that I was a part of, and so I actually have gotten to see Diamond on this level, not just playing against the WNBA. And that is the conversation that we have when you have a player like Diamond. You know, you have a chance to race down the floor at a pace and get an easy shot, and she provides you that opportunity. Diamond has grown,” Reeve said.
Opportunities can fluctuate in the WNBA. One day someone is a starter, and the next day they’re coming off the bench. This has happened to DeShields since the 2021 season with Chicago. After previously holding a starting role, she adjusted to coming off the bench while only playing 25 minutes a game. For DeShields, she admits the process was tough but being a part of training camp made it all worthwhile.
“After the past two seasons, you know, just having a role primarily coming off the bench for my teams, and just seeing my identity or trying to reshape my identity,” DeShields said. “So once I got the invite, I was kind of taken aback because it’s one of those things that just kind of validates the work that you’ve been doing. Not that it would have invalidated me as a player had I not gotten invited, but it was definitely one of those feel-good moments.”
How did the veterans react?
There is quite a mix of veterans and young players at the camp. One of those veterans is Angel McCoughtry. A five-time all-star with the Atlanta Dream, McCoughtry has dealt with her own share of injuries. She suffered two torn ACLs within the span of three seasons (2019 and 2021 respectively). She explained her thoughts on DeShields’ performance and her journey recovering from the spinal tumor.
“I really enjoyed it. We were on the same team today. Prior leadership. She was very vocal, she had some great shots. She did everything,” McCoughtry said. “I know she had battled some things with the back injury. But you know, you couldn’t tell none of that. So, she looked really really good. I can tell her confidence is there and you know, she feels comfortable.”
After asking a follow-up question regarding perseverance through an injury, McCoughtry took a moment and spoke to her experience.
“Injuries are tough, you know. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s a cakewalk. It’s definitely a journey,” McCoughtry said. “It’s a mental journey more than anything. But the beauty of it is that the combat, like, you just don’t stop. You just keep grinding at it.”
DeShields has embraced the grind as she looks to continue to grow and make the USAB roster for the FIBA World Cup Games. Reeve spoke about how her growth could help the team as they go into international play.
“You know I thought about being with Diamond a few years ago and now, you know, her being a veteran. That was a player that I thought today put herself in really good positions to do the things that we talked about,” Reeve said. “So a great candidate for that pace and getting out and going and using her own athleticism.”
Written by Hayden Cilley
Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.