Skylar Diggins stands with her hands on her hips. She doesn’t seem to know where else to put them as a photographer nearby click click clicks away with his camera. Throughout the shoot, Diggins tries a myriad of poses, but somehow her hands keep winding up at the center of her body.
“I’m such a hands on the hips girl,” Diggins says, laughing. “I’ve got to mix it up.”
There’s something awkward about posing for hundreds of pictures at a time, and despite years as a bona fide celebrity who’s appeared in several glossy magazines and on Nike billboards, Diggins is still getting used to it. She asks, “Was that good?” after every pose. When her manager pokes fun at her stance in one of the pictures, she laughs nervously.
Eventually, she finds the right look, clutching a basketball above her bicep as it rests against her shoulder. The camera lights flash, and Diggins displays a perfect smile. That’s the look.
The spotlight has taken some getting used to for Diggins, though it’s far from the only adjustment she’s had to make on her journey to Oklahoma.
The shoot takes place in the middle of a month (July) in which Diggins is enjoying a phenomenal sophomore season of professional basketball, averaging 20.1 points and 5 assists, both up from a rookie season that was surprisingly underwhelming. Drafted third overall in 2013 by the Tulsa Shock after a decorated career at Notre Dame, Diggins seemed poised to take the league by storm. She was the Fighting Irish’s all time leading scorer; she set a school record for steals (114) during her senior season; and she appeared in the Final Four all four of her years in school.
But Diggins’ play as a rookie with the Shock was pedestrian at best. She averaged just 8 points per game and shot 32 percent from the field. Her assist totals were half of what they were during her senior season in South Bend. One of the most hyped rookies in recent memory was wilting under the Tulsa sun.
A Difficult Transition
Diggins chalks up her difficult transition to lack of familiarity with new teammates. “I was playing in a pre-season game within eight days [of being drafted],” she says. “You don’t have time to get in with your coaches or develop chemistry with your teammates. It’s kind of like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Let’s get on the court and play.’”
The Shock finished 11-23, a two-win improvement over the previous season. Diggins knew neither her play nor her team’s performance were good enough. “I was the first one to say I wasn’t happy with the product I put on the court last season,” she says. “But everyone that knows me knows that I’m a perfectionist, so I don’t think I surprised anyone with the work I put in over the off-season.”
Diggins pinpointed the weaknesses that plagued her during her first season, then built an off-season training regimen designed to eliminate them.
As a smaller point guard who darts to the hole, weaving in and out of traffic, Diggins realized that her frame was not strong enough to deal with the physicality of the professional game. So she spent almost every day in the gym training her core strength and balance.
Rick Freeman, trainer and founder of RIX 3602 Fitness, who began working with Diggins after her rookie year, says, “My goal was to get her stronger without packing on unnecessary pounds. She needed the confidence to do things she didn’t think she could do.”
Diggins performed exercises like Low and High Planks, Squats, and One-Leg Pistol Squats, challenging moves that reveal weaknesses an athlete might otherwise be able to hide. She also used kettlebells and speed ropes to add muscle. She says, “It’s a grown woman’s league, so I had to get a grown woman’s body.”
Check out her full workout.
[pullquote]It’s a grown woman’s league, so I had to get a grown woman’s body.[/pullquote]
Defensively, WNBA teams noticed Diggins’ propensity to drive to the hoop with her left hand, and during her rookie season they often forced her to go the opposite way. This contributed to her low shooting percentage. So during the off-season Diggins spent time perfecting her skills with each hand, ensuring that if her left was taken away, she had the confidence to go right. She enlisted the help of Pat “The Roc” Robinson, a former member of the And 1 “Streetball” collective, who put her through a plethora of intense ball handling drills.
“Of all the NBA and WNBA clients I have, her name is at the top of the list as one of the hardest workers,” says Robinson. “She wanted to train three times a day, three hours at a time.”
Diggins took the lessons she learned from Robinson into her pre-game routine. Before each game this year, she warmed up with stationary ball-handling drills, bouncing two basketballs out in front, then at her sides; dribbling one ball high and the other one low; and working on her crossover. She also performed drills to build coordination with her right hand, both when stationary and on the move, so she could better handle professional-level defensive pressure.
Diggins also worked on what she calls her “Steve Nash finishes,” finishing at the rim with either hand and jumping off either foot, just like her favorite NBA point guard.
Finally, she perfected a quicker release on her jump shot, practicing a quick dribble move before rapidly getting her shot in the air from five different spots on the court.
The result of all this work was the type of season everyone initially expected from Diggins. In addition to her point and assist totals skyrocketing, her field goal percentage jumped to 42 percent, 10 points higher than the previous season. Her outstanding performance landed her on the All-WNBA first team and earned her the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Off the Court
As Diggins’ game improved, so did her visibility off the court. She was the first female athlete to sign with Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s sports-marketing venture, whose client list boasts superstars like Kevin Durant and Robinson Cano. Having become a leading face of the WNBA, she appeared in Sports Illustrated both as a basketball player and a swimsuit model; sat front row at New York Fashion Week; and spawned a fan club based on her headgear (#headband-nation).
But there is more work ahead. Diggins was accustomed to playing in front of sell-out crowds every night at Notre Dame, but attendance in Tulsa has been sparse—as it is in many other WNBA arenas. However, with an influx of young talent like Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, Maya Moore and Diggins, the league may be undergoing a resurgence. TV viewership increased last season, the strongest growth coming during ESPN’s airing of the WNBA Finals. The matchups between the Chicago Sky and Griner’s Phoenix Mercury (the eventual champions) drew 659,000 viewers—an increase of 91 percent over the previous year.
“We might be walking slowly but we’re not walking backwards,” Diggins says. “I’m so happy about the future of this league, and I think the Shock are among the most exciting teams to watch. Whatever I can do to promote the league and its longevity, I’m going to do that.”
The photo shoot is winding down, and Diggins seems more relaxed. She’s on the court, challenging her publicist to a game of one-on-one. The publicist, who’s wearing heels, declines.
“Come on!” Diggins pleads jokingly, bounding around the court with her ponytail bobbing behind her. But the publicist stands firm. It’s probably for the best. Diggins has other commitments today, and she still has a flight to catch. She heads back to the locker room with an arm around her publicist, head cocked back in laughter.