The maddening promise of Diamond DeShields

Polarizing reputation. Confusing résumé. Swirling questions. Second-year Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields is at a turning point in her young professional career. What has never been in question? Her ridiculous talent. Whitten Sabbatini for ESPN

DIAMOND DESHIELDS ROLLS her eyes at the group of middle-aged men running up and down the Chicago Sky practice court. It's July of 2018, and she's come into the Sachs Recreation Center, some 25 miles north of downtown, for an off-day workout. She had expected to find the gym empty, but instead a phalanx of sweaty dudes is traipsing over the black silhouette of the Chicago Sky logo stamped onto the hardwood of the old Chicago Bulls practice court.

DeShields needs to find somewhere else to work out.

She opens the door to the team room, grabs an orange-and-white WNBA ball and walks out of the gym, past the exercise pool and the check-in desk and over to the field house with her trainer, Michael Murphy, in tow.

The mesh divider hanging between the two high school-sized courts makes the cramped space feel even tighter. Pickup games are being played on both courts, but DeShields claims the last empty half. Murphy scrounges up a bench for her while she puts on her shoes so she doesn't have to flop onto the worn hardwood floor. Four men play 2-on-2 on the other side, oblivious to who is warming up not 30 feet from them -- a No. 3 draft pick and starting guard for the Chicago Sky.

She's used to it. As a teenager in Georgia, she used to hustle men in pickup games. They didn't know who she was. That was a feature, not a bug. She routinely took their money.

"As a female, you're in a constant state of being underestimated," she says. "It was fun, and it was easy."

Now, on the court, DeShields catches a pass from Murphy. She bounces the ball between her legs, gathers it and squares. She does it again. Does it another time. On this rep, she lets it fly. Swish. She runs the baseline between the corners, catching and shooting outside the boundaries of the court, since there is no WNBA 3-point line.

"Shoot from the high school line," Murphy says.

She continues running around that 3-point line, jacking up shots. As she turns from the baseline to the wing, her foot catches on the mesh divider. She stumbles as the ball is thrown to her but manages to recover and hoist a shot up anyway. Murphy runs DeShields all over the court, drill after drill. It all looks effortless until you see the sweat on her back.

A ball from the other side of the court rolls across half court, traveling a foot in front of DeShields. Mid-drill, out on the wing, she follows it with her eyes as it spins toward the wall. She doesn't go after it.

"Sorry!" one of the men calls, trotting over to grab the wandering sphere. DeShields hasn't moved, waiting for this guy to get out of her way. He jogs back to his side of the floor.

She shakes her head with a smirk, takes a dribble and shoots.


She can only control what she can control.

WHEN DIAMOND WAS 4, she and her brother, Delino Jr., were sitting in the kitchen of their Atlanta home. On the counter was a small pair of scissors. Diamond was curious. She decided to try to cut something. The something she settled on was her eyelashes.

Delino looked on as Diamond lined up her lashes. "Are they past the scissors?" she asked him.

"Yeah," 7-year-old Delino said. And she snipped her eyelashes.

"Let me do yours," Diamond said as she moved the scissors toward her brother.

When the two were playing downstairs not an hour later, their mother, Tisha, stared at them from across the room. Something looked off, slightly amiss. Her eyes followed them until she figured out what was different. She was not happy.

"I was like, 'Oh s---,'" Diamond says, laughing about it now.

"The eyelash incident," as it came to be known, was not unusual for Diamond DeShields. Delino -- or Lino, as Diamond calls him -- was the quiet one. Diamond? The troublemaker. She, the little sister with the big ideas. She, the one in control. "Being big brother, I always support her," Delino says of his willingness to play along.

Still, just as Lino was content to follow his sister's plans, Diamond was equally content in his world -- a world of baseball. Their father, after all, was a major league ballplayer, a 13-year veteran, the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year award, and fast -- he stole 463 bases in his career and one year led the National League in triples.

Diamond was fast too, faster than all the boys she played with in T-ball. She lived for shagging balls and playing catch in the backyard. There's a photo the family keeps of Diamond in a cheerleading uniform with a baseball mitt on her hand.

"She always wanted to play catch with Daddy," Delino Sr. says. "That was my catch partner."

When Diamond was 10, she decided to sign up to play organized basketball for the first time. Nothing for the family would ever be the same. She'd been playing at home for years but had never joined a formal league. That didn't matter much.

"They were like, 'Are you sure she's 10?'" Tisha says. "They were questioning her birth certificate."

After Diamond's rec league success, Tisha placed her daughter on an elite local AAU squad. Diamond blossomed into one of the top high school prospects in the country on the strength of her athleticism and her silky jumper. At 16, she was selected to play on the 2011 U19 USA basketball squad. She was named Miss Georgia Basketball twice and averaged 26 points, 7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 4.5 steals per game her senior season. As a senior, she won the World Basketball Coaches Association Player of the Year and Naismith Girls' High School Player of the Year awards. She was a McDonald's All American, a WBCA All-American and a Parade Magazine All-American. She won three state championships at Norcross High School and played on multiple USA Basketball squads.

Her potential was obvious. Every college wanted her. But DeShields always had a plan, was always in control.

It was DeShields who persuaded her mother to move to Norcross, Georgia, a suburb 20 miles northeast of Atlanta, so she could attend Norcross High School. It was DeShields who engineered a historic recruiting class to UNC, only to leave a year later to transfer to Tennessee. It was DeShields who -- after saying she would return for her final year of eligibility -- left Tennessee too.

Now, though, as a rising WNBA star, DeShields has very little control. She can control how hard she works in the gym and the kind of teammate she is. She can control what she puts in her body and what she does with her money. But the WNBA gives teams the power to make decisions over players' future through a mechanism that functions similarly to the franchise tag in the NFL.

DeShields can decide where to play overseas, but not here, not in the WNBA.

SITTING AT A table in Fuddruckers in Northbrook, a northern suburb of Chicago, DeShields picks around her food. It's the middle of the week -- a rare off-day for the rookie -- and after breakfast with a teammate followed by a nap, DeShields is enjoying some potato-wedge fries and a milkshake.

"I don't normally eat like this," she says, alluding to the strawberry French toast, scrambled eggs and cheesy hash browns she ate at Batter and Berries, a local breakfast spot, a few hours earlier -- in addition to this Fuddruckers carb-fest.

She isn't a fan of the thicker fries, preferring the thin, crunchy ones. She motions to the wedges.

"It's not a fry to me; it's something else," she says, and pops a smaller one into her mouth.

She's tired. The 2018 All-Star break is right around the corner, and DeShields is ready to relax. Today is the rare opportunity for her to eat whatever she wants without worrying about whether she'll be bogged down at practice or slower for a game. The season is moving at a breakneck pace, the league fitting in the season before the FIBA World Cup in late September.

It's hardly the first time her career has felt chaotic. In fact, her path to the WNBA has been a series of bold plans -- and surprise exits.

It all began with Pat Summitt. DeShields says she'd always planned to be a Lady Vol like her mom, but when it came time for her to commit out of high school, Summitt's Alzheimer's diagnosis injected DeShields' recruiting process with uncertainty. "My decision became a lot less easy," she says.

She'd already crossed UConn, Duke and Maryland off her list. That left UNC. DeShields saw the opportunity to exert control once again, this time on the college basketball status quo. She picked up the phone. She'd known seventh-ranked prospect Allisha Gray since sixth grade. She'd met Jessica Washington and Stephanie Muvunga -- the No. 14 and No. 23 prospects, respectively -- while visiting UNC. They had all stayed in touch while discussing their recruiting processes. When DeShields called, they all decided to commit to UNC with her. That day.

"Together as a group we were strong, but I know that I was the one that kept it together," DeShields says.

Until she didn't. None of them would graduate from the university. DeShields left first. She'd wanted to almost from the moment she got there, calling her mom every chance she got. "From August of her freshman year, I had to keep her from packing up her truck and coming home," Tisha says. "There were many Friday nights when I was FaceTiming my daughter."

There were many reasons DeShields wasn't happy. At least one of them she'll talk about: While at UNC, DeShields wasn't practicing; she hadn't been for over a year at that point. She was nursing a stress fracture in her left shin, which she'd first suffered in high school. She had opted to postpone surgery, instead wearing a boot whenever she wasn't on the court. She got two platelet-rich plasma injections and was in so much pain that she often cried herself to sleep. Still, she averaged 18 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals and was named the National Freshman of the Year.

DeShields won't say why she transferred -- she never has commented publicly on her departure -- only that she doesn't regret it. "I'm OK with not telling my side of the story," she says.

"She could have worked harder for us. I think she gets it now. She's got a maturity level to her now that she probably didn't have in college." Former Tennessee coach Holly Warlick

But when she announced her decision to leave UNC in April 2014 and her transfer to the University of Tennessee two months later, the discourse wasn't kind:

"Diamond DeShields raising the roof and red flags," wrote John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Said former UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell to Durham's Herald-Sun: "She told us she wanted a release, five days after she said on television 'We're playing for you, Coach Hatchell.' And then I met with her before she left. I kept asking her, 'Talk to me, what's bringing this on?' She couldn't tell me."

The women's basketball rumor mill churned. A Sports Illustrated article profiling Hatchell as she returned from cancer treatment that fall made an unattributed dig at DeShields, saying her absence was good for team chemistry. And on it went.

"I sit very content with every decision that I have made," DeShields says now. "I know my heart, and I never done wrong by nobody."

Still, Tennessee, she says, is where she always wanted to be. Until it wasn't. In the summer of 2017, with one year of eligibility remaining, DeShields announced she was leaving Knoxville.

DeShields says today that she had every intention of going back to Tennessee. The Vols had a historically strong recruiting class that season, and she'd helped recruit many of the players to the program. She'd told the four incoming freshmen that she'd be returning. She did the same with the coaching staff. Teammate Mercedes Russell was staying with DeShields in Atlanta for the first part of the summer, and before she left, DeShields promised her that she'd be seeing her in a few weeks.

But a gnawing discomfort -- an urge to move on -- had been keeping DeShields up at night. And then there was that leg. When she'd arrived in Knoxville three years earlier, she'd had surgery to repair that stress fracture in her left leg. She'd rehabbed while sitting out the year mandated by the NCAA because of her transfer, but when she was finally cleared to work out, she began, again, to feel pain.

She told her coaches. She told the training staff. She got X-rays and MRIs, all of which came back clean. A bone scan revealed another stress reaction, this time in her ankle. When DeShields elected to attend physical therapy sessions off campus, she argued with the coaching staff over what shoes she could wear.

There was, she says, no trust. She had already graduated with her degree in communications. At that point, why go back? "You're playing professional college basketball," DeShields says, noting the absurdity. "You're working out every day, playing in games, and you're not getting paid."

It didn't help that she wasn't playing well and Tennessee wasn't winning. In DeShields' second season at Tennessee, the 2016-17 Lady Vols went 20-12 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to fourth-seeded Louisville.

"Very mediocre," DeShields says of her college career. "I wanted to at least win a national championship, go to the Final Four, be an All-American or something. I didn't do any of that."

Says former Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick, bluntly: "She could have worked harder for us. I think she gets it now. She's got a maturity level to her now that she probably didn't have in college."

DESHIELDS PARKS HER Mercedes-Benz crossover -- a gift from her brother four years ago -- in the garage underneath her building in Northbrook. She takes the elevator up to her team-supplied apartment. The place came furnished; it has a nice-sized kitchen island. The only contribution she made was the PS4 sitting in the TV stand.

This apartment is just a temporary home. DeShields doesn't really have a permanent one. After her departure from Tennessee, she wasn't eligible to play in the WNBA during the 2017 season, having missed the deadline for the draft. So she signed a two-year deal to play for Cukurova, a Turkish professional team in Mersin, a port city of about 1 million on Turkey's southeastern coast. She averaged 16.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in her first season. Her lower left leg still swelled after games.

Today, the commute from the WNBA to overseas takes DeShields through a revolving door of homes that don't belong to her. During the WNBA season, she's put up by the Chicago Sky in this apartment. She's put up overseas. When she's back in the States during the WNBA offseason, she stays at her mom's in Atlanta or couch surfs. "I refer to myself as a nomad," she says.

When DeShields left for Turkey in 2017, it was indeed the beginning of an odyssey. She entered a country in the midst of an economic crisis. DeShields is one of the few players to have a six-figure deal overseas -- she was paid a little under $300,000 her first season at Cukurova. But when she signed with Cukurova, the currency exchange rate for the Turkish lira to the U.S. dollar was less than 4-to-1. By September 2018, it was 6-to-1.

Good news? Not exactly. With her contract suddenly worth a lot more in Turkish currency, the team could no longer afford to pay her -- so instead of playing, she opted to sit while a deal was negotiated. She didn't touch a basketball for a month before returning to the U.S. with a settlement. "I took maybe half of what I was supposed to make," she says.

Four months earlier, in that team-supplied apartment in Chicago, DeShields had opened her first monthly WNBA check. It was a little less than $4,000, a far cry from the two envelopes stuffed with $25,000, in $100 bills, that she'd received in Turkey for a month's work.

Then, after returning home from Turkey, DeShields switched agents and waited for the phone to ring.

Three days after Christmas of 2018 and two months after returning from Turkey, DeShields was back on a plane -- en route to China to play for the Shanxi Flame in Taiyuan, China, a city of 4.4 million, 300 miles southwest of Beijing.

She played five games for Shanxi, averaging 20 points per game. Within a few weeks, when the team failed to make the playoffs, she was back in Atlanta, resting and waiting. She was paid just under $200,000 for her trouble -- or more than four times her WNBA salary.

DESHIELDS STARES OUT the window of a bus as it rolls down the Las Vegas Strip on its way to a local school. It's late July 2019, and WNBA All-Star Weekend is in full swing. A handful of All-Stars are en route to a youth fitness and wellness clinic. While the others have their noses buried in their phones, DeShields' gaze wanders to the window, the Strip hotels rising off the desert.

Those buildings might not be as tall as the skyscrapers in downtown Chicago, but in Vegas everything looms large. The Las Vegas Aces are owned by MGM, as are 14 hotels on the Strip, and their presence is evident. The schedule for All-Star Weekend is plastered all over Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand. Aces gear is visible in the windows of shops across town. The team is discussed at blackjack tables.

Back in Chicago, it's hard to realize that the Sky -- and the WNBA, in general -- even exist.

"As a female, you're in a constant state of being underestimated."
Diamond DeShields

DeShields didn't expect to be an All-Star, but she hoped for it. For the first time in five years, she feels healthy. In the offseason, literally overnight, she stopped eating foods that had contributed to inflammation in her body. No beef. No chicken. No shellfish. No tomatoes or corn.

She originally stopped eating all meat, including fish, but in training camp she lost 12 pounds. "And I'm already about to disappear," she says with a laugh. "So I'm reluctantly a pescatarian, but there's no part of me that misses land creatures. If I was starving and you had a plate of chicken wings, I would not even budge."

By all evidence, it has worked. This season, DeShields is the Sky's leading scorer in her second season, averaging 16.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals. Even with her increased output, she's still figuring out how to maximize her athleticism.

"If I could sky up there and get a rebound amongst the trees, I would every day," says Chicago point guard Courtney Vandersloot. "And I get on her like, 'Why don't you do that every time?'"

Tonight DeShields will get an opportunity to show off that athleticism in the skills challenge. It's the usual drill: Make a chest pass through a target, dribble to the other basket for a layup, come back down to make a 3-point shot. When asked if she'll win, DeShields laughs. "Nah," she says. "BG [Brittney Griner] will take it."

She smirks just enough to betray the joke.

A few hours later, DeShields steps onto the court. In the first round, she torches Minnesota guard Odyssey Sims, zipping her chest pass through the circle on the first try. She has enough time for a little flair on her layup finish and slows to a trot before drilling the 3-pointer. She dispatches Atlanta Dream forward Elizabeth Williams in the second round with a performance mirroring the first.

In the championship matchup against the Connecticut Sun's Jonquel Jones, though, things get interesting. Jones takes DeShields' favored side of the court, the left side, and DeShields winds up missing all three pass attempts. If she is to even have a shot, she'll have to come from behind -- and get lucky.

DeShields sprints to catch Jones, who is already pulling up for a contest-winning 3-pointer. But Jones misses. As DeShields comes back down the court, she slows her steps and pulls up. She knows it's in once it leaves her hand, holding her follow-through as she runs toward the basket. Once the ball falls through the net, she lets out a yell and a flex.

DESHIELDS SQUEEZES INTO a pair of jeans in her suite at the Delano Las Vegas hotel. There's a pizza box on the table and two empty takeout containers that once held calamari and Alfredo pasta. "Becoming," by Michelle Obama, rests on the desk. DeShields just started it.

She's getting ready for the orange carpet, a newer WNBA All-Star tradition in which All-Stars walk the carpet, take photos and sign autographs. The usual. But DeShields is late. Her post-skills-challenge celebration was a nap. And though she's supposed to be downstairs in 10 minutes, she's just trying on her first outfit option.

DeShields has brought a Los Angeles-based stylist to dress her for the weekend. And now that stylist is handing DeShields items from the rack of clothes she set up inside the bedroom suite. After trying on each outfit, DeShields settles on the first option: plaid-and-denim pants, a silver blazer with flared lapels, strappy silver heels. Teammates Allie Quigley and Vandersloot FaceTime DeShields multiple times, imploring her to hurry up. DeShields, unbothered, takes her time to put up her hair, put on a touch of makeup and grab her glasses.

At 7:45 p.m. -- 15 minutes before the orange-carpet event is scheduled to end -- she walks out of her hotel room toward the elevator. When the door dings open, she's greeted by two families with small children. They part for her and her camp to enter.

DeShields, her assistant, manager and stylist pile into the elevator. She towers over everyone in her 4-inch heels. Her eyes rise toward the ceiling, and she takes a deep breath. Four hours ago, after winning the skills challenge, she was being interviewed on national television. In this overfilled elevator, the families pay her no mind -- they have no idea who she is.

DESHIELDS YELLS TOWARD the Sky bench, "That's bulls---!" She's just been called for fouling Courtney Williams, sending the Sun guard to the line for three shots with 1.3 seconds left in regulation. It's an early-September game, less than two weeks from the start of the playoffs, and the Sky lead 94-91. Williams can send the game into overtime.

Williams hits all three, and the crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena roars. The Sun have lost only one home game all season and just nine on the year. Chicago handed Connecticut one of those losses in June at Wintrust Arena. DeShields had 12 points.

Tonight DeShields is having a career night. She has shot 10-of-19 from the field for 26 points, including a layup through contact over the Sun's Jonquel Jones (she of the skills challenge final). DeShields scored her 1,000th point on her second shot of the game, a 3-pointer from the wing. She's the third-fastest in franchise history to the mark, behind only Elena Delle Donne and Candice Dupree.

Now DeShields has an opportunity of her own to win the game. After the ensuing Sky timeout, she runs the baseline to the corner in a play drawn up by coach James Wade. She catches the pass, squares and lets it fly. Short. Overtime.

After missing her first two shot attempts in OT, DeShields hits a jumper from the wing for the go-ahead basket. A few possessions later, she skies to secure a defensive rebound with four seconds left and the Sky up by three. She's fouled.

DeShields shakes out her right arm as she steps to the line. It's not the game-winning jumper, but hitting one of these free throws will deliver the game for Chicago; hitting both will net her a career high of 30 points.

The referee bounces her the ball and she takes a breath. She pauses. With a flick of her wrist, she can end this game. It's easy money.

This is a thing that she can control.