Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, June 05, 2017

WNBA Feature: Skylar Diggins-Smith and the Rookies Have Dallas Making Progress

By  Rob Knox - @Knoxrob1

NEW YORK – In attacking the basket with ferocity, absorbing contact, and aggressively defending with unrelenting passion, Skylar Diggins-Smith looks terrific. Perhaps, better than ever.

The fifth-year Dallas Wing guard is fully recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in 2015. Against the New York Liberty in a tough 93-89 loss at Madison Square Garden, Diggins-Smith splashed 3-pointers, dropped dimes to her teammates, and confidently navigated the Liberty’s tough defense for a team-high 19 points.

Even though she averaged 13.1 points in 27 games last season, Diggins-Smith was feeling her way back from her injury. While she had moments of brilliance, there were also times when she struggled. However, thanks to a strong summer, the Wings and fans of the WNBA are enjoying the rewards of Diggins-Smith’s hard work, determination, and commitment.

“My confidence doesn’t waver,” said Diggins-Smith, who is averaging 14.3 points, 5.3 assists which is fifth in the league, and 3.2 rebounds. “I know how hard I worked. I put a lot of time in Dallas to work on my body. I had a great offseason. I am feeling great right now.” 

The Wings dropped to 3-4 overall after losing to the Indiana Fever, 91-85, Saturday night in the second game of a brutal back-to-back road set. Dallas arrived in Indiana around 2 p.m. after having to take two flights from New York. Glory Johnson led the Wings with 22 points and 13 rebounds in the loss to the Fever.

A national television audience will see Diggins-Smith at her best when the Wings host Washington Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ESPN2. That game will feature the second (Elena Delle-Donne of Washington), third (Diggins-Smith) and fourth (Tayler Hill of Washington) draft picks of the memorable 2013 WNBA Draft.

Dallas’ roster underwent an extreme makeover from last season. The Wings traded Odyssey Sims to the Los Angeles Sparks. In a rarity, rookies Evelyn Akhator, Kaela Davis, Allisha Gray, Saniya Chong, Allisha Gray, and Breanna Lewis all made the roster. The five picks are the first time since Minnesota in 2000 that a WNBA team entered the season with five or more draftees. The Lynx had six rookies that season. 

As one of six returning players from last season, Diggins-Smith has enhanced her leadership this season. 

I am just continuing to be a leader,” Diggins-Smith said. “I think it’s a mindset of being a point guard and having that mindset of wanting to balance and distribute and making sure I am aggressive. We have a lot of good players on this team and lot of players who came in right away wanting to contribute.

Gray has had a significant impact so far for the Wings as she’s established herself as an early candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. She was named the WNBA Rookie of the Month for May after leading all rookies in scoring (13.0 ppg), rebounding (5.0 rpg) and minutes played (24.4 mpg) in five games (all starts).  

Her scoring and rebounding averages were both among the top 25 in the WNBA.  She also ranked 18th overall in field goal percentage (46.8). Gray, the fourth overall pick in WNBA Draft 2017 presented by State Farm, helped Dallas to a 3-2 record during May.  The former University of South Carolina standout scored in double figures four times, including a season-high 17 points in a 94-82 win over the San Antonio Stars on May 25.

Gray has enjoyed a whirlwind two months since helping South Carolina win the NCAA championship. 

“Everything has happened so fast,” Gray said. “I’ve been non-stop since we’ve won the national championship. The next day, I had to come home and decided if I wanted to declare or not. Then having the draft and you’re coming straight to training camp and playing the season. Overall, it’s been an amazing journey and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Gray admitted it was hard to leave the Gamecocks after her junior season. She spoke with reverence about the South Carolina coaching staff, her teammates, and more importantly Gamecock Nation. 

Gray has been blessed to share her rookie year with her former USC teammate Davis.  They are averaging 23.0 points per game between them, making them the top two rookie scorers in the league. Davis opened her career with a bang by scoring 20 points in a win over Phoenix.

“It’s great,” Gray said. “Kaela and I been through a lot at South Carolina to being drafted together. Having somebody I knew during training camp when I was trying to learn the team was great to have. The physicality is one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make. These girls are strong and you don’t get the calls you don’t normally get in college. You just have to play through it, be aggressive and tough.”

Chong, Diggins-Smith and Karima Christmas-Kelly have combined to average 9.8 assists per game. Chong dished six assists in a road win against San Antonio. She’s played at least 10 minutes in every game this season. 

“It’s great that I am not the only rookie here,” Chong said. “They feel the same, know how it is and it’s been really awesome to have them with me and have them on this journey with me. For me, the key is always being mentally prepared. There’s a lot of veterans here in the league. They know how the game is played and are really smart doing certain things. I can be physical and work hard, but I know if I am not playing smart then I am not getting anywhere.” 

The Wings are poised for success as their talented youngsters gain more experience. It should be noted that Dallas has played without Aerial Powers, who is recovering from hip surgery, and Courtney Paris. With Diggins-Smith leading the way for the Wings, they should battle for one of the eight playoff spots.

“[They are] not far off at all,” Dallas head coach Fred Williams said of his rookies. “I thought our organization and management team did a great job in the offseason to select players that could come in here and contribute. I think they’re playing a really good role of playing a lot of minutes without us having Aerial Powers with us. (Gray and Davis) didn’t think they’d get a lot of minutes but now they’re getting a lot of pro experience.”


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