Earlier this month in the Chicago Sky’s home win over the Phoenix Mercury, Diamond DeShields streaked down the court at Wintrust Arena on a fast break. She had just one defender to beat and, as she has done so many times before, attempted a reverse layup. In the past, DeShields, with her combination of speed and athleticism, would fly over opponents for the easy two points.
Now? Everything has changed. That shot doesn’t fall so easily.
Wintrust Arena is familiar territory for the five-year WNBA veteran. The Chicago Sky drafted DeShields with the third overall pick in 2018, and she played four seasons in Chicago, making the All-Star team in 2019. In 2021, the guard was a member of the Sky’s championship squad.
This season, DeShields wears the purple and orange uniform of the Mercury, the team Chicago beat in the WNBA Finals last October. The change of scenery — new team, new teammates, new city — is helping her move on from one of the worst episodes of her life.
In January of 2020, DeShields had a tumor removed from her spine. In the aftermath of the surgery, she dealt with spasms and tremors. Known for her speed on the court, DeShields had to learn to walk all over again.
“I was spending every day with her on FaceTime when she was going through that,” said Las Vegas Aces All-Star forward Dearica Hamby, one of DeShields’ longtime friends. “Just watching her go through that, I almost came home. I was (playing) overseas in Italy when that was going on, so it was hard.”
While her teammates in Chicago and friends around the league knew about her struggles, DeShields kept the ordeal to herself, choosing not to say anything publicly. Even after returning to basketball in the delayed 2020 season, she didn’t share what she had endured outside her circle of support.
“For a while, I didn't think she was ever going to tell anyone,” said Cheyenne Parker, DeShields’ teammate in Chicago who is now with the Atlanta Dream, “because just when it happened, she was just like, ‘Please keep it to yourself. Don't tell anyone. I just want to get through this.’ And so I respected her wishes.”
DeShields played 13 games that season, averaging 6.8 points in 17.2 minutes per contest. She left the WNBA bubble before the 2020 campaign ended for personal reasons. Clearly, something had changed in DeShields, a 2019 All-Star who averaged a team-best 16.2 points and led the Sky to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons and was featured in WNBA commercials for 2020 next to stars Sylvia Fowles and Nneka Ogwumike. And even as the Sky won the WNBA title in 2021, DeShields moved to the bench.
“The first couple of years after the surgery, I could tell it was mainly mental and that she just had so much in her head that she was battling,” Parker said. “Like it's so hard to, especially when you're a Diamond DeShields and there's all these expectations, it's hard to be vulnerable and just transparent.”
As the 2022 WNBA season began, she decided it was finally time to let the world know how hard it was for her to just make it back to the WNBA. In a story that aired on ESPN, DeShields revealed what the past 16 months had been like for her.
“Once the piece came out, it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders that I didn't really know was there,” DeShields said. “The response that I got from everybody and the overwhelming sense of just positivity that I was receiving, it was really nice and it was almost part of my healing, the last little bit that I needed to kind of get over that hump.”
Physically, DeShields is completely healed from her surgery. She averaged 11.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in 26.9 minutes per game last year for Chicago, as Kahleah Copper’s growth as a player meant fewer minutes for DeShields.
DeShields showed what she can still do in the WNBA. In the offseason, the Sky traded DeShields to the Mercury in a three-team deal, and in Phoenix, she is regaining her feel for the game. DeShields is averaging 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists and starting to show some of the speed and athleticism she’s known for.
“I think she's starting to get back to herself,” Hamby said. “She has a little bit more freedom versus the situation in Chicago. They were trying to compete and win, and there was really no time for her to find herself. So I'm happy she's finding herself there and she's able to play a little bit more free.”
DeShields did not walk into an easy situation in Phoenix, however.
Two weeks after the trade, All-Star center Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained by Russian officials while traveling to Ekaterinburg to play basketball. Her absence has been felt well beyond the court, and the calls for her release are only growing louder.
Also, emotions have publicly flared in Phoenix more than once. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith came nose to nose in the huddle of an early season game against Las Vegas. Tina Charles and the team “divorced” after it was clear she was no longer a good fit there. Diggins-Smith tweeted that her coach Vanessa Nygaard was a clown after Nygaard said the All-Star game wasn’t truly an all-star event because Taurasi hadn’t been voted to play. And after every incident, the Mercury said that they have moved beyond the difficulties. But the tension is clear.
Even with the controversies in Phoenix, DeShields has found comfort. When she’s on the bench, she’s usually not sitting, cheering on her teammates and yelling instructions.
“I really enjoy our locker room,” DeShields said. “I really enjoy everybody on the team. I think that being in a new environment is really good for me, in regards to just turning a page and just looking forward and trying to be a better version of myself.”
At the young age of 27, DeShields already has a championship ring and has been named an All-Star. Her goals are a little different now. She wants to figure out how to use her athleticism again and find joy on the court. Sometimes, when she is running down the court and taking off to make a shot that doesn’t seem possible, she feels like her old self.
“It's like being a kid, just outside in the snow for the first time. Trying to channel that and reel that in at times has been my biggest challenge, because sometimes, I just want to go fast just because I can,” DeShields said. “But it's been really nice. Learning to trust it again has been probably one of the biggest obstacles for me in knowing that it's there now and relying on it more. So just picking my moments — when to be fast, when to not be fast — has been the biggest challenge, but all in all, it feels really good.”
DeShields is usually coming off the bench for the Mercury, but her contributions have been huge as the team fights to make the playoffs. In a late June win over Dallas, she notched a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds. Just before the All-Star break, she scored 21 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a loss to Chicago.
“Diamond was fantastic. It was stepping up exactly when we needed her, seeing her, the challenge was everybody to get a couple more rebounds in and Diamond did well above that,” Nygaard said after the Dallas victory. “I mean, they had some big women on their team, but Diamond was flying up there. Just the will, the grit, the perseverance to really want to win the game and to really have a great performance tonight. So it was great to see from her and we are hoping that just continues.”
DeShields now knows what she is capable of doing on the court. It’s just about not getting too much in her own head.
“(It’s) finding those moments where I need to kind of be more of me and be more present on both sides of the ball, really knowing I have the ability to change the pace and change the momentum of games,” she said. “I think that the more that I can kind of be present energetically, defensively, offensively, I think that is going to only help the team.”
Late in the defeat against the Sky, DeShields again had that breakaway drive. The crowd in Chicago started to murmur. The fans knew what she could do.
This time, DeShields was able to finish the reverse layup. And a smile came over her face.