WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith leading upstart Wings toward playoff hopes

Skylar Diggins-Smith has bounced back. She earned a nod to the 2017 WNBA All-Star game, and her Dallas Wings are in a position to contend for a playoff spot in the franchise’s second season in Dallas.

“I do think we have put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs and I think that’s the most important thing especially with our format and how it goes,” Diggins-Smith said to The Summitt at All-Star practice in Seattle. “Anything can happen once you’re in and now I think it’s just making sure we have a spot and taking care of business.”

Diggins-Smith has led that charge to return to postseason play. Her numbers are up across the board after missing most of the 2015 season with a torn ACL. It is not uncommon for players to need time to return to peak form following an ACL tear. Basketball history is littered with examples of players returning to form in the season after the return from injury.

The play of starting forward Glory Johnson, too, has perked up. Veteran wing Karima Christmas-Kelly, rookie Allisha Gray, and Theresa Plaisance round out the starting five for the league’s fifth-best offense.

The Wings play the third-fastest pace in the league and get to the free throw line more than anybody. Diggins-Smith often leads that charge. She can run right by (or through) you in the open floor:

Diggins-Smith has admitted in the past that she is not the fastest guard breathing, yet she is able to push the pace and find success early in the shot clock. Getting in front of her to stop the ball in transition is only the beginning.

Diggins-Smith orchestrates the pick and roll beautifully in the half court. She will cross back over or wait for her screener to twist the screen. She changes speeds and has a mean hesitation dribble to get to the rim. And Diggins-Smith thrives when she can keep her dribble and attack along the baseline for her own shot or set somebody up.

Her baseline drives can be especially devastating. Pick and roll coverages often prefer to send ball handlers that way. Diggins-Smith regularly blows by that big and draws a third defender onto her, making it easier to find an open teammate. In all, her well-rounded approach results in highly entertaining pick and roll play:

Theresa Plaisance has started 15 of 18 games this season for Dallas and her minutes load is nearly twice her previous career high. Most notably, she opens things up offensively with her ability to knock down open threes.

On nearly four attempts per game, Plaisance is shooting 38% from deep. Many of those looks come via a pick and pop with Diggins-Smith. The Wings’ lead guard regularly draws multiple defenders in a ball screen situation. When that extra attention arrives, Diggins-Smith finds her stretch center to make the defense pay:

Come on. The amount of time Plaisance had to wind up and fire that last three is unreal. Playing with Diggins-Smith has its perks!

The Wings are in the upper half of the league in three-point makes and attempts but to the tune of just 30%. Removing the injury-shortened 2015 season, Diggins-Smith is shooting a career-high 34% from deep. She also has created many of the three-point catch-and-shoot opportunities for the rest of her teammates:

30% shooting on a higher volume is not ideal, but this is a young roster. Three of the team’s five rookies are playing 10+ minutes per game. Fans of the Wings ought to remain optimistic in that light. Aerial Powers, a double-digit scorer (and 36% 3PT shooter) is still working her way back from hip surgery. When Powers does return, she figures to nudge that 30% number in the right direction.

Dallas is obviously doing lots of things right on that end to score so much in spite of a less-than-ideal three-point percentage. When Diggins-Smith isn’t initiating, Christmas-Kelly will hold office hours on the block and earn a bundle of trips to the line. Gray is a threat to run some pick and roll, slash to the basket and run off screens for open jumpers. Kaela Davis, Gray’s college teammate, does much of the same for the Wings in her role off the bench.

Glory Johnson, also a multiple-time All-Star, has a really nice chemistry with Diggins-Smith:

Johnson spends time all over the floor. She’ll pick and pop on occasion, slice through a shifting defense or face her defender up and blow by to the rim. Johnson is also very bouncy. Diggins-Smith will find her power forward with well-timed lobs or bullet passes that only Johnson can catch.

9 players have been in the regular rotation for Head Coach Fred Williams. Courtney Paris is back from a knee injury and rookie Saniya Chong sees minutes both as the backup for Diggins-Smith and alongside her.

Kayla Thornton brings a maximum effort off the bench. Her effort level alone can swing a game, seen in Dallas’ June 9 win over the Sparks. Thornton had 13 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 16 minutes. Even Thornton has found ample room to stretch her game after attempting just one three-pointer in her rookie season:

Those are the kind of looks you can just walk right into playing with Diggins-Smith. She creates a great deal for her teammates. For the Wings to get back into the postseason, a goal team President Greg Bibb shared with Howard Megdal a few months back, Diggins-Smith will also need to get her own.

From Bibb to Diggins-Smith, the organization is on the same page. “I think that you have to start with the playoffs. Obviously, everybody’s extreme goal is to win a championship,” the star guard said.

“Every team in the league wants [a championship]. But realistically for us,” Diggins-Smith said, “we’re taking it one game at a time and our eyes are definitely on the playoffs, just having an opportunity to compete for a championship. We’ve got to get in the playoffs.”

I mentioned her career-best three-point percentage. It is very much helped by a 7-for-11 explosion against San Antonio on June 23. Take that out and she’s at 28%. But you’re about to see most of her makes. You’ll notice that very few of these come easy on the catch. Diggins-Smith shoots many of her threes off the bounce. When she’s hitting them, it’s essentially a checkmate:

Just about every team with a dynamic guard wants to set an early high ball screen when possible. Dallas does so often. They’ll also have Johnson and Plaisance set a double screen on the ball. This complicates the decision-making of the defense. Somebody’s got to cut off the drive. One of the bigs could roll while the other pops, but there’s no guarantee as to what each person will do.

Diggins-Smith is a huge threat to turn the corner and gain a head of steam to the rim. More times than not, this shot will be there for her:

If you’re still reading, you’ve seen the lion’s share of the outside shots made by Diggins-Smith this season. Is it likely some would hope to see her percentages a bit higher? Of course, but every player would love to can a few more shots every night.

Diggins-Smith is taking the jumper when it’s there this season, even inside the arc. The sample is much, much smaller, but knocking these down will garner even more attention from the defense:

Speaking to larger tendencies, it is impressive that Diggins-Smith looks comfortable shooting off the bounce going to her right or her left. Scouting reports often remind us that right-handed players would rather go left to pull up and vice versa for left-handed players.

Diggins-Smith and her teammates are scoring at a high rate right now. This is a point at which some growing pains are very much expected for the many young players on the roster. The young players look like they have been empowered and encouraged by Williams and his staff. Johnson and Christmas-Kelly have been aggressive secondary scoring options putting pressure on defenses near the basket.

By no means is everything coming up roses for Dallas. The Wings were the league’s worst defense in 2016. David Vertsberger hit on the need for that end to improve in his season preview. To date, the Wings edge only the Fever in defensive rating. With five rookies and two second year players, the uptick couldn’t have been expected to come overnight.

Fred Williams acknowledges the importance of improving on that end plenty. As the season wears on, his team likely is fully aware that more skeptics will surface if the wins stop coming.

Into All-Star weekend and through the summer, Diggins-Smith will look to continue to lead the way. She was among the leaders in early return All-Star voting, proving that her strong play is not going unnoticed.

The long-term ceiling of the Wings is largely unknown at this point. More importantly: This team is acting on a plan to develop its young players, and doesn’t seem likely to panic and sacrifice much of what has been gained along the way.

Diggins-Smith spoke on the collective youth of the roster, saying, “Right now and we have a lot of players that came in ready to contribute and who came from great programs and great coaches.”

She continued to embrace the “youth movement”, saying, “Exactly who they are is what we needed for our team this year. And I think their possibilities in this league are limitless. For us as the youngest team, this second half is going to be a grind.”

Diggins-Smith is back to playing at an All-WNBA level for a team building for the future with young talent that fits around her. This is just the second year for the franchise in Dallas. 

Diggins-Smith spoke glowingly about the local market. “I love the people there. I love the passion for sports. There’s always something to do. it’s just a great city. It’s been great playing in an arena where people say, ‘It’s tough to play here.'”

“It’s just a fun atmosphere,” she said of the College Park Center, located on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. “I think just the fit of it, I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house.”

“The design and the style of how we run our games and the experience of our gamesI hear people saying, ‘That was my first time coming and I’ll be back,'” Diggins-Smith said, “and I’ll see those faces back.”

She doesn’t see the 30-minute drive from the heart of Dallas as an issue: “For us to have those kind of reactions around the city, it does say there are a lot of not just sports fans but women’s basketball fans.”

The Wings ought to feel good as they march toward that goal to return to the postseason. And with Diggins-Smith leading that charge, the organization and its fans know they are in good hands. 

Note: This was originally published July 10; all stats are current as of that date. The piece was edited to include quotes from an interview with Diggins-Smith that occurred at All-Star open practice in Seattle.