Skylar Diggins-Smith and Dallas are ready for a playoff push
When opportunities arise, such as at the WNBA All-Star Game last month, Dallas guard Skylar Diggins-Smith tries to pick the brains of the league's most successful players.
"I try to talk to the winners; I want to know how they got it done," Diggins-Smith said with a smile. "And players like Diana [Taurasi], Seimone [Augustus], Tamika Catchings -- they'll tell you how they got it done.
"So I'm taking their advice, doing consistent work, and not being OK with losing. I'm impatient; most players are. Who wants to hear anything about a 'process'? You want it instantaneously, but that's not how it works."
When Diggins-Smith was at her hometown university, Notre Dame, she was able to make an impact immediately, leading the Irish to the Final Four three times. Her mission now is elevating Dallas, which is 13-14 and in seventh place in the WNBA. The top eight go to the playoffs.
The Wings can't afford any letup; things can change quickly in the WNBA, and the battle for playoff positioning likely will go to the wire. But Dallas just finished a very important weekend, with victories at home against Seattle and Los Angeles, the latter its second win this season over the defending WNBA champion.
The Wings will be at home again in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) as they face 13-12 Phoenix, one of the teams ahead of them in the standings.
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Among their seven remaining games, the Wings still have two trips to Connecticut. That's part of the quirkiness of the WNBA schedule, as is the fact that Dallas has played the most games of any team except last-place San Antonio (6-21). In other words, the Wings are most definitely in the regular-season stretch run, and Diggins-Smith is ready to race hard through the tape to what would be her first appearance in a WNBA playoff game.
Now in their second year in Texas, the Wings never really caught a break during six seasons in Tulsa as the Shock (having relocated from Detroit). The franchise made the playoffs in 2015, its last year in Tulsa, but Diggins-Smith was out with a season-ending ACL injury.
That brief, star-crossed Tulsa history seems more and more distant. The Wings still face challenges as they attempt to climb up the WNBA's food chain. But there's a sense of youthful enthusiasm and energy with the Wings, and Diggins-Smith is leading both with her play and her personality.
"She has fully regained her strength and her balance after the knee injury," Wings coach Fred Williams said. "I think the size and structure of our team has helped as far as her getting open looks at the basket. And having the ball in her hands in the point position a lot for us enables her to have better shot selection, too.
"Her basketball IQ is off the charts. She really thinks like a coach while playing; she's one step ahead of her opponents a lot."
Diggins-Smith leads the Wings in scoring (18.4 PPG), assists (5.7) and minutes (33.5). She had a nearly flawless game Friday in a 93-80 victory over Seattle: 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field, and seven assists. She had five of the Wings' WNBA record-tying 16 3-pointers.
Then Sunday, the Wings beat the Sparks for the second time, 85-79, splitting their four-game regular-season series with Los Angeles.
Glory Johnson -- who has had some "wow" highlight-reel plays this season both offensively and defensively -- took over against L.A., finishing with 23 points and 13 rebounds. Fellow forward Karima Christmas-Kelly, a seven-year vet who just gets the job done, scored 17 points. And Diggins-Smith had 14 points, eight of them coming in a tense fourth quarter. Her two free throws with 26.1 seconds left slammed the door for the Wings.
Diggins-Smith always has been an especially fit player, but she's in fantastic shape in this, her fifth season in the league.
"I understood the big leadership role I was going to play on this team, with so many players being young," Diggins-Smith said. "So I had to be ready to lead by example in our workouts as well as in games.
"You want to be in great shape in this league, especially with the pace we want to have as a run-and-gun team. And being a point guard, pushing the ball, I need to have that stamina."
Diggins-Smith's offseason work with Williams, staying in Dallas rather than going overseas, has helped her also be very comfortable with his system.
"He gives me the green light," she said about how she has blended her scoring and passing roles. "Being a point guard, sometimes you get in the mentality where you pass, pass, pass. I want to make sure I'm still being a [scoring] threat, looking for my shot to open things up."
Getting second-year guard Aerial Powers back also has given the Wings another weapon. She missed the first 22 games of the season after hip surgery but has had an immediate impact since her July 25 return. In five games, she is averaging 12.5 PPG and 3.8 RPG.
Add that to the success of rookie guard Allisha Gray, who has started all 27 games along with Diggins-Smith, Johnson and Christmas-Kelly. Gray is averaging 12.6 PPG and 4.2 RPG, and if she is feeling any of the expected rookie fatigue -- especially having played all the way to the end of the college season, winning the NCAA title -- Powers' being so fresh can help with that.
I still love this game so much, and feel I still have a lot to give.
- Skylar Diggins-Smith
Post player Theresa Plaisance deserves a nod, too; she is having the best season of her four-year WNBA career. She has started 20 games, averaging 7.3 PPG and 4.3 RPG. With last year's starting center Courtney Paris missing 14 games this season with injury, Plaisance's step forward has been important.
"We're starting to get ourselves in a better rhythm," Williams said. "Some of that is defensively, but also offensively. Having all the players healthy has been a really big key.
"It's been great to have [Powers] back on the floor -- just her energy, her anticipation on defense, she's a tremendous competitor. It's made us better collectively as a team."
Of course, that's what Diggins-Smith strives to do, too, and she is happy to be in that role.
"I still love this game so much, and feel I still have a lot to give," Diggins-Smith said. "We've put ourselves in position to make the playoffs this year, and the way it's set up, anything can happen."