- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Remember when the news broke in May 2012 that four blue-chip juniors all decided to commit to North Carolina's women's basketball team?
Diamond DeShields was the point person in bringing them together, and it appeared to be a lottery-jackpot day for the Tar Heels. DeShields, Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington -- ranked third, eighth, 15th and 17th, respectively, in their 2013 recruiting class -- were all headed to Chapel Hill, N.C.
What could go wrong?
Well, it might have crossed your mind that day -- it did mine -- that when a group of teens makes long-range plans to do something complicated together, it might go awry. Not being ageist; it's just that kids are kids. We've all been there.
Thursday, after a stellar season in which DeShields led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Elite Eight and was espnW's national freshman of the year, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell confirmed her star was transferring. Hatchell, who was out this season as she battled leukemia, said she has no idea why DeShields decided to leave.
Until DeShields explains her reasoning and where she plans to go, there will be plenty of speculation about both, but here are some thoughts from two extended interviews I did with DeShields before and during the season that are interesting to ponder in retrospect.
Last October, I talked to her about how the "Gang of Four" had come together to decide to play for the Tar Heels. Of course, as is common now, they had gotten to know each other through club basketball and kept in touch through texts and social media. They played different positions, so they felt they would complement each other as college teammates. But why was North Carolina right for them?
"This is a place where they're not going to try to restrict you," DeShields said. "Coach Hatchell [told] us that we were going to go fast, and she was going to let us play basketball.
"And the knowledge that we've gained throughout our high school years, growing up and trying to get to the college level, we've all learned different things. And Coach Hatchell's going to allow us to do those things without trying to change us or make us into a different type of player. So it was just perfect for us all."
To my old-person ears, this sounded rather comically cocksure. Kids who had yet to play a college game wanted to be assured of coaches who wouldn't try to change them? That's kind of like a student saying, "I want to go to a college where the professors won't try to teach me things I don't already know."
Still, I thought perhaps what DeShields really meant was that she didn't want to be forced to play a style that she was less comfortable with. And considering that the Tar Heels' style has long been "run fast and make shots," maybe she was totally right. North Carolina was a good fit.
Hatchell kept in very close contact with the Tar Heels, meeting with them in person when her health allowed. Her longtime assistant, Andrew Calder, coached the team in her stead, and a former UNC standout, Ivory Latta, was an assistant this season. The entire UNC staff, as far as I could tell, seemed vigilant about DeShields' happiness. And it seemed, from the outside, that DeShields got along with her teammates.
But part of me wondered if UNC was really going to give DeShields the spotlight that I think motivates her. Not the program, but the school and the Chapel Hill community. I'll put it this way: There are several schools that have bigger and more engaged fan bases for women's basketball.
Nonetheless, DeShields played well all season, averaging 18.0 points and 5.4 rebounds. She seemed the leader on the court vocally. She talked fondly of Hatchell, and it certainly didn't appear that anyone was forcing her to change the way she played or anything else about herself.
Opposing fans admired her talent, but some didn't care much for her on-court persona or some of her remarks off it. I liked her confidence and how she had more court awareness and sense of the moment than the average freshman. Were there times I thought maybe she needed to dial down the "Diamond factor" just a bit? Sure, but I figured that would come naturally as she got older.
In February, I chatted with DeShields at Carmichael Arena the day after she scored 38 points in a victory at NC State. That had come less than a week after her 30-point performance in a victory at Duke. You might have thought DeShields would be pretty giddy.
But instead, she seemed very serious, as if she had a great deal on her mind.
"I am a thinker, so I can lose sleep thinking," she said. "But when I play in those big games, I use my instincts. I dream about stuff like this: playing at Duke, taking the big shots, but it's never really like you see it in your mind."
DeShields went on to explain that in the process of anticipating a game, she could get panicked and worried that it wouldn't go well. She was much calmer when she was actually playing.
She also thought it was important for her to keep a positive expression and good body language because she felt her teammates fed off of that.
"The more fun I'm having, the harder I'm going to play," she said. "Smiling is actually a serious gesture that I'm enjoying the game. It's not me being arrogant. It's me laughing to myself like, 'OK, it's on!'"
DeShields also mentioned she had learned a lot from her USA Basketball experiences before college with UConn players Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, and Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike. And she complimented her coach at Norcross (Ga.) High, Angie Hemblee, for all she had taught her.
It sounded like DeShields had matured even in four months at UNC. Then, we started talking about how a freshman of a similar level of ability in the men's game -- someone like Kansas' Andrew Wiggins -- would be gone to the pros after one season in college.
"If that was an option for women, I could see myself doing that," DeShields said. "Andrew is having a blast in college, I'm sure, but he has a family he wants to provide for and things he wants to do that he can do in a couple more months if he just signs his name on a line and plays basketball.
"But that also makes college about more than basketball on the women's side. We know, 'You're going to be somewhere for four years, and you gotta make sure you love it, because there's no leaving.'"
So how was DeShields enjoying college, beyond just basketball?
"It's difficult," she said. "It's hard. I miss being home a lot. Family, friends. I don't get to see them as much as I'd like to. Going home [to play at] Georgia Tech was great for me. I was actually crying when I had to get back on the bus just because I didn't want to leave them.
"But, like I said, in four years, I want to be able to sign my name on the dotted line and give back to all those people who support me and want to see me do well. It's worth it in the end. I'm going to make it worth it."
At the time, I thought DeShields was possibly dealing with the mental drain that can hit freshmen in February. And the homesickness seemed explainable because she'd just been back to play in Atlanta 11 days earlier.
But both these conversations came back to me upon hearing that DeShields was transferring. It's why the news -- while still very surprising -- wasn't a total shock.
DeShields is an extremely gifted player who has very lofty goals. She's a more complex and thoughtful person than whatever tag an irritated opposing fan might pin on her. But she's also leaving a coach who is extremely disappointed to lose her, and now there's a big fork in the road. Transferring means sitting out a season.
"There's no leaving," DeShields said. But, in fact, she is leaving North Carolina.
In October, Diamond DeShields said North Carolina was "perfect" for her. Six months later, for unknown reasons and with an uncertain future -- but perhaps not totally out of left field -- DeShields has decided to transfer.