There are few definites in a franchise player’s return from a debilitating injury, but Skylar Diggins had a return date clearly circled on her 2016 calendar.
May 21 marked 328 days since a misstep in Seattle left her writhing in pain on the KeyArena floor, and 325 days since the announcement of her season-ending surgery for the torn ACL in her right knee.
Such an injury requires equal parts caution and patience. Diggins’ ran dry as May 21, the day of the Dallas Wings’ first-ever home game, approached.
Her mom, Renee Scott, was in town. Her first signature shoe, the Nike Zoom HyperRev 2016 Player Edition, had dropped two weeks earlier. Its inspiration? Her mom, whose “You Do You” mantra and nickname, “Shug,” are featured in the design. Oh, and it was her mom’s birthday, too.
The wait was over – or at least Diggins thought. During a 12-minute run as part of the Wings’ 82-77 win over the San Antonio Stars, she missed the only two shots she attempted, committed two fouls and two turnovers, and scored just one point.
“I found out maybe I should wait a little longer,” Diggins admitted four months later, following the team’s final home game of its first season since moving from Tulsa.
“I was noooot ready. Noooooot. Like, not even close. But I didn’t know yet. I didn’t know how I would feel.”
The new-look franchise’s outlook matched its star player’s. Despite preseason projections that they would emerge as contenders, the Wings were similarly not ready. Diggins played 27 of 34 games and shot just 39 percent from the field; the Wings never got back to full strength and missed the Playoffs with an 11-23 record. “Character-building,” Diggins answered when asked to describe her season.
As Diggins enters a critical offseason in her career, the fate of the franchise is as intertwined with her progress as ever.
The worst part about the injury was not the pain or the rehab, Diggins said in looking back. It was that, after five straight losing seasons, the Tulsa Shock were rolling. An injury can be mended with hard work, and Diggins knew she had that in her. But the type of chemistry the 2015 Shock displayed out of the gate takes years to build. “It was our first time playing together and we were just getting a feel for each other,” Diggins said.
In 2015, they entered a Sunday afternoon game in Seattle riding a seven-game winning streak following a season-opening loss, rising them to the top of the Western Conference. For five years the Shock had worked to rekindle the franchise that had won three titles in Detroit before relocating to Tulsa in 2010. The first three of those years yielded a combined 18-84 record. That led them to Diggins, who they selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft. For two subsequent seasons, they played the role of promising young team experiencing growing pains before its true growth spurt.
That Sunday in Seattle, they continued to stamp their arrival. Diggins had poured in 31 points when, with the Shock down one, she drove in for a lefty layup, missed long, and raced through the paint for the ball that had been tipped to the top of the key. With teammate Plenette Pierson in position to scoop it up, Diggins planted her right foot and hopped to get out of the way. She successfully veered to the left, but in the process felt a twinge in her right knee.
The pain caused her to grimace and kept her planted to the hardwood for the next several minutes, her knees curled toward her chest. She got up, however, and walked it off like any other bump or bruise she’d experienced; she’d appeared in 224 of a combined 227 possible games since her freshman season at Notre Dame.
“I didn’t think [it was serious],” Diggins recalled. “I’d never been injured before – maybe like a little rolled ankle, but I didn’t miss any games. I always played and I always practiced. That’s something I pride myself on is taking care of my body.”
Doctors on the KeyArena floor said there appeared to be no ligament damage, according to Diggins. The Shock went on to win the game, 93-89, to improve to 8-1. Two days later, the team announced her injury as a knee sprain that would sideline her for their four-game road trip. When she finally underwent an MRI, the news “was devastating.”
How am I going to tell the team? she thought. She called assistant coach Bridget Pettis, who was with the team at the airport en route to their next game. They both cried.
“It felt like, ‘Well, this is our journey now,’” Pettis recalled.
The months since have been spent trying to recapture the feeling that evaporated that night in Seattle – of a rising team led by a rising superstar. Diggins embarked on a grueling rehab process, most of it spent at her alma mater in South Bend, Ind.
A month after the injury – during a 10-game losing streak – WNBA owners unanimously approved the Shock’s relocation to Dallas. The team rallied to bid farewell to Tulsa with its first Playoff appearance in the city, but was swept by the Phoenix Mercury in the first round.
Diggins itched to return, stuck in a monotonous rehab cycle. “Rehab is boring and it’s tedious and you have to do the same thing every day,” she said. “And you feel like, ‘Man, I want to do more. Do I need to be doing more? Should I be doing less?’”
Research on other athletes who’ve returned from ACL tears, including WNBA All-Stars Candace Parker (2003) and Seimone Augustus (2009), gave Diggins the extra push she needed. “It’s just a little hurdle,” she realized.
Diggins and the franchise faced an uncertain future as their home shifted nearly 300 miles south. Two life-altering events for the 26-year-old changed that.
First the team made a long-term commitment. On March 16, new general manager Greg Bibb signed Diggins to a contract extension that runs through the 2019 season. Despite the injury, Bibb called the decision “a no-brainer” – one he made before the Wings played a game or even unveiled their uniforms.
“Skylar first and foremost is probably the hardest-working athlete I’ve ever seen,” Bibb told WNBA.com. “She is the quintessential ‘first in the gym, last out of the gym.’
“Many people have asked the question… ‘How can you make that kind of long-term commitment?’ Because her work ethic is elite. I knew that as a competitor she was going to do everything in her power to get back to the elite level she was playing at before the injury.”
On June 21 – the day after she once again returned to action, this time for good – Diggins’ longtime boyfriend, former Notre Dame football player Daniel Smith, made a long-term commitment of his own. That afternoon, the couple paid a visit to the Mary Tomas Gallery in Dallas’ Design District. Diggins thought they were just there to take pictures as Smith, a graphic designer, walked her to one of his pieces. Then he got down on a knee.
Yes, Dallas has already grabbed a special, permanent place in Diggins’ heart as the place where she got engaged. The couple has settled in Las Colinas, a suburb of Irving. But the year of milestones has hardly slowed.
Less than three weeks later, Diggins and her new fiancé teamed up on a children’s book, The Middle School Rules of Skylar Diggins. (Daniel did the illustrations.) A month after that – during the WNBA’s Olympic break – Diggins toured Greater China, making appearances, running clinics, and sightseeing. And the awe of owning a signature shoe has yet to wear off.
“Men and women hoopin’ in my kicks, that’s crazy,” she said. “That’s something I used to talk about wearing the Air Swoopes (the signature shoe of Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes).
Between the move to the fifth-largest TV market in the U.S., an international fan base that includes two million-plus social media followers, and the backing of Nike and Roc Nation, Diggins has the makings of a transcendent athlete, the potential face of the WNBA. All that’s left is taking care of business on the court.
It’s Sunday at noon, two hours before tip-off for the Wings’ final home game of their first season, and Pettis is in her familiar position underneath the basket, rebounding for Skylar.
The two meet on the court two hours before every game, which often makes them the only ones there at that time. Sometimes that involves taking a cab ahead of the team bus.
Today, like every game day, Diggins begins with form shots to warm up, then moves into spot-up and off-the-dribble jumpers. Next come deep twos, pick-and-roll shots and change-of-direction shots. Finally, Diggins steps back and launches three-pointers from around the arc. She’s required to make five of each type, from each spot, before retreating to the locker room.
As with most (if not all) elite players, the daily routine fuels Diggins. Pettis, a former Phoenix Mercury guard, sees some of a former teammate in her new pupil. “Next to Diana Taurasi,” Pettis said, “she works as hard as anybody in this league.”
That daily routine, however, was the first thing Diggins was robbed of post-injury. The free-flowing spontaneity that defines her game was hampered by a bulky brace on her right knee. “In the beginning of my season, I was just overthinking,” Diggins said. “As I get further and further away from my knee injury, the less I think about it, the more I attack.”
Her burst, confidence and jump shot came in flashes throughout the season: 27 points in her fourth game, 29 against the eventual champion Sparks, 29 more in her last game before the Olympic break, 22 in the home finale. But Diggins never truly regained her full rhythm and athletic ability.
“I said to her, ‘You want to be straight back to where you left off, but unfortunately it just takes time,’” said Wings newcomer Erin Phillips, who’s suffered two major knee injuries in her career. “I think it always takes you a year to find yourself again.”
That’s why, even before 2016 ended, Diggins already had eyes on 2017 and a checklist of refinements to make to her game, now that she’s escaped the rehab grind: improving her agility, especially when moving her feet defensively; adding strength; increasing her three-point range; tightening her handle.
“Because she works so feverishly at all aspects of her game, there’s very little concern that she won’t be a better player when she comes back [next season],” said Bibb.
“She was at an MVP level at the beginning of  in terms of her play. I have no doubt she’ll be at that MVP level soon.”