The Phoenix Mercury guard has been all business since his team reached the WNBA Finals — and really long before that. She warmed up before the Game 2 overtime win against the Chicago Sky in workmanlike fashion, shooting jumpers without expression opposite Diana Taurasi. As other teammates bounced to the music or joked with one another, Diggins-Smith methodically went through her routine. She let loose a quick smile at one point and sang a few bars of a Cardi B song, but those moments were fleeting.
The day before was even more intense. The Mercury wrapped up practice, and Diggins-Smith stayed late on the court for a long chat with Coach Sandy Brondello at the top of the arc. She gestured to certain areas of the floor, took a couple of dribbles and simulated a few actions. The two finished, and Diggins-Smith had media obligations that she couldn’t be less excited about. There were no smiles at that point, just a steely stare, as she sat in a row of chairs behind the basket with Phoenix down 1-0 before Wednesday’s win.
The five-time all-star signed with the Mercury before the 2020 season for one reason — to win her first championship. Now that she’s oh-so-close, her legendary concentration has been cranked up even more.
“I’m just enjoying it all,” Diggins-Smith said. “You know, I don’t really feel any way right now. I’m irritated. I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’m ready for Game 2.
“That’s all I’ve pretty much got to say. I’m irritated I’ve got to be out here answering questions because I just want to focus on the game.”
The words may sound gruff, but they weren’t said in anger or with malice. Diggins-Smith was insightful and accommodating, but her mind has clearly been on one thing, and any distraction brings out a touch of ire. That focus has been something teammates immediately noticed when she joined the team, and it hasn’t wavered over two seasons. Taurasi has known Diggins-Smith for years, and the two were on the gold medal-winning Olympic team this past summer, but one of the greatest competitors any sport has ever seen was even taken aback watching Diggins-Smith every day.
“I’ve never seen someone compete like she does,” Taurasi said. “I mean, she takes it personally. She wants to win. She wants to play great. She pushes you to play hard. I mean, she’s just played so great this year. She’s done so many things that even I’m like … Skylar’s really good. And for her to be here is a reward for all her hard work.
“Every day is the same. Every day is Game 5 for her. That’s kind of ignited my passion for the game a little bit to see someone do that every single day. What she did [in Game 2] was Skylar taking it to a different level.”
Diggins-Smith took that Game 1 loss to heart and was determined not to let it happen again. She finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and a postseason career-high 12 assists and scored the game-sealing basket with an inside-out dribble that created space for a layup with 12.8 seconds left to go up 91-86 — the game’s final score . These moments and the outward ferocity radiating from the 5-foot-9, 145-pound frame are nothing new to those who have been paying attention for a decade plus.
Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said she knew Diggins-Smith was something different back in 2005. That’s why Diggins-Smith became the first high school freshman offered a scholarship by the Hall of Fame coach. McGraw said the poise and work ethic was obvious even then.
“When she came to Notre Dame, I thought she was the most competitive player I ever had,” McGraw said. “And I don’t think that’s changed one bit. She’s definitely always had that drive and that edge. And she’s somebody that, just, she’s relentless. She doesn’t stop for a minute.”
As much as the relentlessness and resilience is forward-facing on the court and what most see publicly, the small circle close to Diggins-Smith gets to see another side. She’s a dedicated mother and wife who has actively and loudly advocated for the league for years. Mercury teammates say one of the biggest surprises since getting to know her has been her sense of humor. Everyone knew about the sometimes-brooding energy from afar, but there’s a jovial side that not everyone gets to see.
“We kick it a lot, and her humor is pretty damn funny, actually,” Mercury center Brittney Griner said. “I didn’t know she was that comical when talking. Just natural zingers, boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Taurasi added, “She’s always so serious when we’re on the court, but … she drops one-liners all the time, and I’m like, wait, what?!”
Game 3 is Friday in Chicago.
Two more wins and Diggins-Smith will complete a career year in which she won both a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal for the first time. Then everyone will get to see that wide, toothy smile.