clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Digging deep: Can Skylar Diggins-Smith capture the championship that has eluded her since her collegiate days?

New, 1 comment

Is it title time for Skylar Diggins-Smith? At Notre Dame, she led the Fighting Irish to three Final Fours, yet never captured the ultimate crown. For the first time in her WNBA career, she is in the Finals. Will she, finally, finish a season with a championship trophy in her hands?

2021 WNBA Playoffs - Las Vegas Aces v Phoenix Mercury
In her first WNBA Finals, Skylar Diggins-Smith has her eyes on the championship that has eluded her.
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Skylar Diggins-Smith has complied a career that any young, aspiring hooper should envy.

In addition to her numerous on-court achievements at the high school, college and professional levels, she has built a successful individual brand. As the first woman athlete to sign with Roc Nation Sports, the agency founded by JAY-Z, Diggins-Smith has secured several high-profile endorsement deals, including becoming the first women’s basketball player to sign with Puma. Since giving birth to her son in 2019, Diggins-Smith also has emerged as an outspoken advocate for mothers, both within sports and beyond.

However, her impressive resume is missing one thing — a championship.

After arriving at the precipice of a national title three times as a collegian, she is on the footsteps of a championship for the first time in her WNBA career.

Can the Mercury “digg” deep to deliver the ultimate, elusive trophy to Diggins-Smith?

At Notre Dame, the Sky was the limit

Following an illustrious prep career at Washington High School in South Bend, Indiana, the then-Diggins opted not to take her talents to another top-ranked collegiate program, instead staying in her home town to hoop under the Golden Dome for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Despite the pressures of being the highly-recruited local gal, Diggins met, if not exceeded, all expectations during her four years as a Fighting Irish (2009-2013). She departed Notre Dame as the all-time leader in points, steals, free throws made, games started, minutes played, double-figure scoring games and triple-doubles. She also is one of six NCAA Division I players (women or men) to total at least 2,000 points, 500 assists, 500 rebounds and 300 steals in their career. Along the way, she claimed two Nancy Lieberman Awards, two first-team All-American honors and two Big East Player of the Year awards.

Louisville v Notre Dame
During her four seasons at Notre Dame, Skylar Diggins ran the show for the Fighting Irish.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Perhaps most notably, Diggins led the Irish to seven victories over the UConn Huskies, all during the era of expected UConn dominance when the likes of Maya Moore was suiting up for the Huskies. Two of these victories came in Final Fours. As a sophomore in 2011, Diggins posted 28 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals to propel Notre Dame past No. 1-ranked UConn. The following season, she and the Irish repeated the feat, taking down the Huskies in overtime.

Yet, Diggins and Notre Dame could not capture the championship in either season, falling to Texas A&M in 2011 and Baylor, led by now-teammate Brittney Griner, in 2012. Diggins’ senior season, UConn got their revenge, knocking her and the Irish out of the Final Four and keeping a championship out of her hands.

It certainly could be argued that she is among the most accomplished women’s college basketball players to not win a national championship, an impressive, yet undesirable, accolade.

Sky flies to the WNBA

Touted, along with Griner and Elena Delle Donne, as one the WNBA’s “Three to See,” Diggins-Smith was selected by the Tulsa Shock (now the Dallas Wings) with the third pick in the 2013 draft.

After an uneven rookie season, Diggins-Smith had a fabulous sophomore season, winning the 2014 Most Improved Player award as she ranked second in the league in scoring and fourth in assists. She also secured the first of now-five WNBA All-Star honors.

WNBA All-Star Game 2014
Skylar Diggins-Smith gets introduced at the 2014 All-Star Game alongside current teammate Diana Taurasi.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

An ACL injury early in her third season stalled Diggins-Smith’s superstar ascent. She returned to star form in 2017, earning All-Star honors in 2017 and 2018. The now-Dallas Wings snuck into the playoffs both seasons, although they suffered a pair of first-round single-elimination game losses.

That 2018 playoff game would be the last time she wore a Wings uniform. Dissatisfied with the organization as she sat out the 2019 season due to post-pregnancy mental health struggles, Diggins-Smith demanded out of Dallas, arriving in Phoenix during the 2020 offseason via sign-and-trade.

Sky in the Valley of the Sun

In forming a new “Big 3” with Diana Taurasi and Griner in Phoenix, Diggins-Smith was seeking to get back to the high-level winning ways that defined her collegiate days.

2021 Phoenix Mercury Media Day
The “Big 3” of Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi at 2021 Media Day.
Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The challenges of the 2020 season prevented Phoenix from coalescing into a championship-caliber team. After escaping their first-round single-elimination playoff game, the Mercury were edged by Minnesota Lynx in their second-round win-or-go-home contest.

This season seemed likely to end in a similar manner, as the Mercury finished with the No. 5 seed and again were forced to play a pair of single-elimination playoff games. However, here the Mercury are — in the WNBA Finals after defying expectations.

Earlier in the season, Diggins-Smith spoke to WNBA.com about her excellent season. She largely resisted elaborating on her success, expressing only a steely, stoic focus. Asked about why she was having the best season of her career, Diggins-Smith simply stated:

I don’t really care to get into it. I’m having fun, having a great time with this team. Sandy (Brondello) is encouraging me to be aggressive and I’m playing good basketball. It’s some of the best basketball I’ve played with a team and one of the most exciting teams I’ve been on.

During Game 5 of the Mercury’s semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces, fans got a bit more insight into Diggins-Smith’s hyper-driven mindset. ESPN’s Ros Gold-Onwude shared the 2021 goals Diggins-Smith had established for herself. They were:

  • Make Olympic team
  • Win Olympic Gold
  • Win a Championship
  • Play with a chip on shoulder every night
  • Be a solid teammate
  • Block out the noise
  • Lead the league in FT
  • Top 5 in AST
  • Top 7 in PTS

Diggins-Smith has achieved what she put her mind to. Along with fulfilling her Olympic dreams, she finished exactly fifth in total assists and seventh in total points. She also led the league in free throws attempted.

Now, can that “chip on her shoulder” that has pushed her to achieve all that she imagined help her mark that one missing item off her list?

After the Mercury dropped Game 1 on Sunday afternoon, the task has become tougher. However, that “chip” likely only got bigger.

It’s championship-winning time for Skylar Diggins-Smith!