Skylar Diggins-Smith’s morning workout started with on-court instruction.
She recruited two Mercury staffers to pose as defenders, and grabbed a chair to use as a screener. Diggins-Smith then mimicked Suns All-Star Chris Paul in the pick and roll, demonstrating a variety of ballhandling, passing and shooting options available depending on how the defenders play.
“This is what he likes to do,” Diggins-Smith says as she starts to dribble to her left before making a big switch to her right hand. “He can come off of this screen, throw it over the top (and) snake. And now he’s probing in here.
“He’s making his big make a decision. If he commits, (Paul) usually has a lob over the top or he can get into his pace play. If not, if the big stays back and they try to switch, he pulls up and shoots the mid-range game.”
The sequence was captured by an array of cameras to package together to use during the Suns Live! pregame show on Bally Sports Arizona. It’s the latest element Diggins-Smith has brought as the newest addition to the Suns’ broadcast team, providing unique perspective as an active All-Star professional basketball player while preparing to play in market for the Mercury for the first time this season.
Though Diggins-Smith said she still gets “nervous when the lights come on,” her dynamic on-camera presence and communication skills combined with her immense knowledge and credentials make her a perfect fit for this role. Her final three appearances will be Wednesday at Philadelphia, Sunday at Brooklyn and April 30 vs. Utah.
“Basketball is basketball, and that’s what we always talk about when we talk about the game,” Diggins-Smith said. “We do a lot of the same things (in the NBA and WNBA). … When you’ve got a guard like Chris Paul who I’m very familiar with his game, and then me obviously being in that point-guard role and coming off screens, I know what he’s looking at and what he’s thinking. I know what the pressure of the moment is like.
“So I think that’s what I bring to the table. (I’m) just finding other creative ways to translate that content for fans that could be educational or entertaining.”
Diggins-Smith has dabbled in television work throughout her decorated playing career, including appearances on ESPN’s First Take and during WNBA Finals and NCAA Tournament games. But it’s a different challenge to become a regular analyst with Tom Leander and Tom Chambers, especially while joining the team in the middle of the season and amid COVID-19 protocols that put guests in a separate Phoenix Suns Arena location rather than at the desk on the reimagined pavilion.
She’s built a rapport with Tom and Tom in real time on the air, with Leander loving the way she can already “joust” with Chambers in addition to her thoughtful breakdowns of players and schemes.
“She’s pulled it off flawlessly,” Leander said. “She’s just made it so easy I think on all of us — me especially. … She just lights up. There’s no question the camera is a friend to her. She’s just an incredibly vibrant and passionate person who has a personality that we’re starting to see on air.”
Added Diggins-Smith: “Once we get started, I’m in my element. But the whole nuance of being on TV from a broadcasting standpoint, that’s still something that I’m learning. They do a great job with the banter and the jokes and the back and forth. I really would say it’s like poetry in motion. I’m just trying to come in and be a sponge.”
Diggins-Smith has covered an array of topics since her first appearance in early March.
She drew comparisons between Paul’s and Devin Booker’s first season playing together and her first season playing with the legendary Diana Taurasi. She broke down Mikal Bridges’ ability to score off ball movement, Cam Johnson’s multi-dimensional game and Deandre Ayton’s defense. She dissected how the Suns attacked Rudy Gobert in their first matchup against Utah, perfectly linking her analysis to the rolling highlights.
Though Diggins-Smith said she needed to do a deeper study on the Suns’ Xs and Os as preparation, Leander has been “blown away’ by her NBA knowledge. She works closely with the production team to plan ideas and formatting for each segment, and texts with Leander throughout the game to discuss halftime topics.
The on-court demonstration, though, is an idea that immediately excited her. After it aired, executive producer Bob Adlhoch said he heard from three television colleagues who work for other NBA teams with a message of, “This is awesome. She is a superstar just waiting to happen.”
“The pick and rolls that Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers ran back in the 80s and 90s are very different from the ones that Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul are running right now,” Adlhoch said. “ … To have her give that first-person account of, ‘When Chris Paul is doing it, here’s what he looks for,’ it’s fantastic.”
The television work also gives Diggins-Smith an opportunity to hone a skill that can keep her involved in the game even after she finishes her playing career. She sees a model in Eddie Johnson, who became the Mercury’s first television analyst while still an active player and has now been a broadcaster longer than he played professionally.
Diggins-Smith is also part of a growing group of WNBA players analyzing the NBA. New Mercury teammate Kia Nurse was part of the all-women broadcast team for a Toronto Raptors game during Women’s History Month. Candace Parker has become a popular voice on TNT’s Inside the NBA. Their involvement exposes more basketball fans to the WNBA’s talent, while showing that women can excel in these types of basketball television jobs.
“(There are) a lot of shoulders that we stand on, and (there are) a lot of women that I love watching on the broadcast,” Diggins-Smith said before highlighting Maria Taylor, Doris Burke, Lisa Salters and Rachel Nichols as some of her favorites. “ … The list goes on and on of women that I watch that I still try to learn from to this day on TV. It’s great seeing representation.”
Joining the Suns broadcast has also allowed Diggins-Smith to truly immerse herself in the Valley’s basketball community for the first time.
Less than a week after she was officially introduced in Phoenix last March, the NBA and society at large shut down due to the pandemic. The WNBA played its entire season inside the “Wubble” in Bradenton, Fla., meaning Diggins-Smith wore a Mercury jersey but never played in Phoenix or in front of the X Factor. She and her family moved to town during the offseason, where she has already noticed the appreciation fans have for the sport.
“I’m learning that they really rally behind their teams,” Diggins-Smith said. “It’s just great being a part of it now and familiarizing myself with the Suns and Phoenix Mercury organization. (There have) been cool little kumbaya moments we’ve been able to have, especially for me being new to the city.”
Diggins-Smith will soon turn her full attention to her day job when Mercury camp opens later this month. Until then, she will continue to bring her presence, drive and perspective to her role on the Suns broadcast.
“I know I’m going to want to stay close to basketball (forever),” Diggins-Smith said. “And, for right now, the Suns are just allowing me to come on, talk hoops and have fun.”