2017 WNBA players to watch | Skylar Diggins-Smith

Dallas Wings’s Skylar Diggins during the first half of a WNBA basketball game, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

It’s become somewhat cliche to say that the Dallas Wings are rebuilding. In seven seasons since their initial relocation from Detroit, the Wings (formerly known as the Shock) have made the playoffs just once. They’ve been caught in a never-ending cycle of accumulating talent through the draft lottery, improving slightly as that talent develops, and then falling back to the cellar due to one circumstance or another.

The only consistent factor for the franchise during this period has been Skylar Diggins-Smith. Despite some ups and downs of her own, it’s clear that the Wings are committed to her as their cornerstone.

Since being drafted by the Shock in 2013, Diggins-Smith has been at the front of WNBA marketing. After struggling in her rookie season, Diggins-Smith’s game quickly caught up, earning her All-WNBA first-team honors and a Most Improved Player award. She spearheaded the young Shock’s exciting, dynamic offense, leading a roster that appeared to have limitless potential.

Two seasons, one franchise rebrand, and a boatload of roster changes later, the Wings are once again starting over.

It could be said that Diggins-Smith is going through a similar process. An ACL injury ended her 2015 campaign prematurely, and though she returned to the court the following season, her play just wasn’t the same. Her usual aggression and explosion was missing, and as the Wings struggled through chemistry issues, Diggins-Smith never seemed at home in her team’s new city.

After a disappointing 11-23 finish, the Wings decided to pull the plug on their previous core. Diggins-Smith’s backcourt mate Odyssey Sims was traded to Los Angeles, veteran backup Erin Phillips was waived and Dallas committed to rebuilding through the draft.

Diggins-Smith remains, however, and she’ll need to return to pre-injury form for the Wings to make any noise this season. Without Sims and Phillips, Diggins-Smith will be both the team’s primary scorer and distributor. To be fair, this is the same role she held during her breakout 2014 season, so it’s not an unreasonable request. Diggins-Smith averaged 20 points and five assists per game that summer, and she’s still just 26 years old. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that she can do it again.

The stakes are a little different this time, however. Consider this: the Wings are heading into 2017 with five rookies on the roster. Evelyn Akhator, Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis, Breanna Lewis, and Saniya Chong were all drafted by Dallas in April, and are all expected to be rotation players in this rebuilding season. That’s a lot of minutes being given to unproven players who will be learning on the fly, and statistically, a lot of usage going toward new pieces.

Forget the individual stats for a moment. This is where Diggins-Smith will have her biggest impact: mentoring Dallas’ younger players, helping coach Fred Williams and his staff put everyone in their place, and fostering the growth of a group that the future of a struggling franchise depends upon. Chong, in particular, will frequently be looking to Diggins-Smith for guidance. She’s projected to be Diggins-Smith’s main backup, and a point guard’s learning curve heading from college to the pros is as steep as any other job in sports.

Expect Diggins-Smith to embrace this. At Notre Dame, she was known for — probably more than anything else –her strong leadership. Go back and read all of the 2013 WNBA prospect evaluations: “natural leader,” “winner,” “makes her teammates better” were all frequently used to describe her. As a young WNBA player, she was probably doing just as much adjusting as leading, and the Wings have never established a functional enough hierarchy for her to thrive in such a role.

This season, though? There’s no question who Dallas is turning to lead its team. Diggins-Smith is healthy once again, and she’s also back in her element: the main cog, both on and off the court, for a team that is looking to finally return to excellence.

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