Tulsa guard Skylar Diggins experienced a kind of optimistic "lightness" last year in her second WNBA season. It was a welcomed feeling as she realized that there was no reinvention needed. By continuing to improve on just being herself -- the steely, savvy and confident player who'd become a college star -- she really was on the path to WNBA success.
"You can talk to a million people who've been through it," Diggins said of the transition to being a pro. "But everyone's experience is a little different. For me, that first year was very character-building. I had to then get my body stronger and be prepared for this physical league. I knew then what to expect."
It's not as if her 2013 rookie season was bad. But Diggins made a rapid and measurable improvement in her second year with Tulsa, and subsequently was named the league's most improved player in 2014.
But did the Shock make that ascent with her? Well, to some extent, yes. Under a new coach, WNBA veteran Fred Williams, the Shock had their highest victory total since relocating from Detroit for the 2010 season.
"He let me make decisions, and I felt I had a coach that believed in me. ... I just felt 'light.' I didn't play with the weight of the world on my shoulders." Skylar Diggins on coach Fred Williams and how she approached last season
However, those 12 wins were in some ways tormenting as well as tantalizing. They weren't enough for a playoff berth. The Shock ended up tied with Seattle at the bottom of the Western Conference, four games behind San Antonio and Los Angeles. The Shock were again left to look back on missed chances and losing streaks that they couldn't snap. Yet there was a feeling that they weren't as far away as perhaps it looked.
Admittedly, if you're a WNBA fan -- and especially if you're a Shock fan -- you might be weary of this narrative: That Tulsa really is on the verge, and with just one more firm kick, the door will fly open to one of those top-four spots in the West.
But it's important to separate this current version of the Shock from the failure-to-launch versions that preceded it. If for no other reason than the good working relationship between Williams, the coach who has seen it all, and Diggins, who at 24 has so much still in front of her.
Diggins said Williams expressed confidence in her, and that helped her growth. So did working with Shock assistant Bridget Pettis, a former WNBA guard.
"We decided where my spots were, and their offense was easy for me to adapt to," Diggins said of Williams and his staff. "Very similar to Notre Dame, with a ton of drag screens and pinch-post action. He wanted this team to run, and we definitely can run. He let me make decisions, and I felt I had a coach that believed in me.
"I thought we had an all-around good group. I just felt 'light.' I didn't play with the weight of the world on my shoulders."
Diggins averaged 20.1 points and 5.1 assists last season, and seemed to mesh well with rookie guard Odyssey Sims. The "keys to the car," if you will, were mostly in the hands of two young drivers. They both began to excel at sharing the wheel.
"It's a lot of fun, it's a joy," Williams said of coaching Diggins and Sims. "You've got two premier guards who are competing on the same team and on the national-team level. It makes my life easier as a coach, because they both can play either position -- 1 or 2 -- and they help me orchestrate the offense and defense."
That said, entering 2014, the Shock still have their issues to deal with. Center Elizabeth Cambage is not in training camp, and Tulsa's message about her remains essentially the same: That the door is open. But nobody is really expecting her to show up.
The other absentee thus far from camp is causing more consternation. Forward Glory Johnson is still not in practice, which is not an excused absence. Johnson was suspended by the league for the first seven games of the season because of her April arrest in a fighting incident with now-spouse Brittney Griner of Phoenix. But Tulsa was expecting Johnson to still be present for camp.
Williams is being pragmatic about both absences, saying, "I'm going with the players I have right now. I've got some veterans who can help fill that void while [Glory] is away. It will be a bonus if she gets back on the floor and does the things we need done.
"But I have to go with the mindset that these players right here, who are practicing and working hard, will get us where we need to go."
"She's a winner and very competitive. She's been the first player here every day in the gym working out. I told her that pressure can make diamonds, or it can burst pipes. She just needs to be herself." Skylar Diggins on rookie Amanda Zahui B.
Johnson has been a starter her three seasons in Tulsa, averaging 14.7 points and 9.2 rebounds last year. She has been a lot more a part of the Shock than Cambage has been. Right now, though, her absence means two of the Shock's past five lottery picks are not with the team.
The past three such selections, though, are present and accounted for: Diggins (the No. 3 overall pick in 2013), Sims (No. 2 in 2014) and center Amanda Zahui B. (No. 2 in 2015).
Zahui, who's from Sweden, comes to the WNBA after playing just two full seasons of college basketball at Minnesota. Diggins wants her to understand there's a fine line between wanting to perform and taking on too much pressure. Zahui doesn't have to be an instant superstar; the Shock have a veteran center in Courtney Paris, who averaged 9.2 points and 10.2 rebounds last season. But a lot is still expected from the rookie.
"Z and I talk every day, and we are going to need her to come in and contribute right away," Diggins said. "But what I told her is to be herself, do what you do well. It's like what I said about my experience: You can't play with the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can't play not to make a mistake.
"She's a great talent, and she's got a lot of the skills that people try to develop. She has them naturally. She's a winner and very competitive. She's been the first player here every day in the gym working out. I told her that pressure can make diamonds, or it can burst pipes. She just needs to be herself, and hopefully we can help her."
Diggins speaks from recent experience about all that, of course. She's also looking forward to having new teammates who've previously spent time in Tulsa: Plenette Pierson and Karima Christmas, who both signed as free agents.
"The first year is such an eye-opener for players coming from college. The second year, you pretty much get after it because you've figured it out. Skylar has done that." Tulsa coach Fred Williams
Pierson, 33, was part of two championship teams when the Shock were in Detroit, and then briefly was with the franchise when it relocated. Then she was traded to New York. Christmas, 25, spent time in Tulsa in 2011 and '12, but then was traded to Indiana and was part of the Fever's 2012 championship season.
Williams thinks both Pierson and Christmas will be very valuable in helping the Shock be a better defensive team, which was one of Tulsa's biggest problems last season in competing against top foes.
Diggins said that last season, the Shock almost always had a solid sense of what they could do offensively and were usually able to execute that. But slowing down other teams' offenses was sometimes very difficult, for a variety of reasons. The Shock didn't match up well sizewise with the bigger teams in the league, including Phoenix and Minnesota. They also didn't always play cohesively on defense. Those are things they'll have to better address in 2015.
But you can tell Diggins believes it's possible. From the minute she was drafted, Diggins became the face and voice of a franchise that hasn't had much success or luck since it moved to Tulsa. Some players -- especially a rookie -- might have treated that as an unwelcome burden. Diggins did the opposite.
Diggins always has had a presence, helping her be an energetic spokeswoman for the Shock. And her play, especially last season, blossomed.
"The first year is such an eye-opener for players coming from college," Williams said. "The second year, you pretty much get after it because you've figured it out. Skylar has done that."