After winning a championship with Chicago in 2021, Diamond DeShields is ready to prove herself again. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The call came late at night. Diamond DeShields was sitting in her hotel room in Istanbul, having just played a game for her Italian club, Famila Schio. January was almost over and WNBA free agency was in full swing.

A restricted free agent, DeShields had recently taken Zoom meetings with multiple teams and was keeping her cell phone nearby in case others called. When she picked up and heard her agent, Mike Cound, on the other end telling her she needed to make a decision, she began pacing the floor. The Phoenix Mercury had made an offer, but it involved a few moving pieces that wouldn’t come together unless DeShields was all in.

“Phoenix?” DeShields said as she crossed the room from one end to other. “Phoenix?”

The name of the city sounded foreign as soon as it left her lips. DeShields, 26, had just won a WNBA championship with the Chicago Sky after taking down the Mercury 3-1 in the Finals. It had been a physical and contentious series from the jump, and those memories still lingered.

DeShields considered other possible scenarios, such as playing one year at the veteran minimum for another team, or not signing at all and waiting it out. The Dallas Wings had also made serious inquiries. But with teams already making moves to fit increased player salaries under a limited salary cap, time was of the essence.

“Phoenix,” Deshields said again, still pacing. But the more she said it out loud, the more she liked the sound of it. Sometime around 3 a.m., the decision was made.

***

Like the rest of her teammates, DeShields was on a natural high after the Sky won their first championship in franchise history. She rode that feeling through the celebratory parade and the days that followed. But when player exit interviews came and went, the reality that the Sky might be willing to let her go set in. On Nov. 23, she left for Italy, uncertain about her WNBA future.

“It wasn’t until I left to come overseas that it started to settle in that, like, OK, you’re a restricted free agent and might not be back in Chicago,” DeShields says. “It was kind of a hard pill for me to swallow at first, to be honest.”

DeShields’ decision to play overseas this offseason wasn’t about making extra income, as it is for most players. It was a personal one.

In 2020, DeShields played in only 13 games for the Sky before leaving the bubble in Bradenton, Fla., citing personal reasons at the time. Still recovering from a knee injury, she filled a limited role for Chicago, averaging 6.8 points in 17.2 minutes per game. Only a year earlier, she had been playing the best basketball of her career, leading the Sky with 16.2 points per game and being named to her first WNBA All-Star team. DeShields continued coming off the bench for most of 2021, and even though she was happy to do whatever it took to help the Sky win, she lost confidence in herself along the way.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a secret that my role had changed drastically on the team into something that I’d kind of never done before, with coming off the bench and not playing as many minutes as I was used to,” DeShields says. “And this is the second season that I was kind of going through that. I know I’m a dynamic player and I’m a team player. Like, sure, I’ll do this for the team, whatever you need from me to win. But I know I can do so much more. I know who I am.”

Playing for Schio gave DeShields a chance to find her rhythm, regain her confidence, work on her game and, perhaps most importantly, remind herself of the player she is. Through eight games in EuroLeague play, the 6-foot-1 guard is third on the team with 11.3 points per game to go along with 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 26.9 minutes per game.

Much like the distance between the United States and Italy, DeShields feels miles away from the player she was the last two seasons as she leads Schio into the EuroLeague playoffs, beginning Tuesday with a best-of-three quarterfinal series against USK Praha. But being overseas also made it difficult as she embarked on her first free agency.

DeShields, as a restricted free agent, could explore offers from other teams, but the Sky maintained the right to match those offers to try to retain her. While she knew they might let her walk, she had never anticipated leaving Chicago. From the start, it felt strange.

“I had made so many meaningful connections with the community and the organization. I had started to really have firm roots in the city and, emotionally, it’s just hard to part with that,” she says.

Even with her heart still in Chicago, DeShields mentally accepted that it was time to move on. She learned everything she could about WNBA free agency rules, the CBA and salary cap restrictions. Every meeting she had with interested teams happened over video, and other than her agent an ocean away, there was no one to help guide her through the ins and outs of the process.

DeShields’ mind swirled with all kinds of questions:

What do I say?
How do I go about these conversations?
What if I’m not really interested in this place or that place?
What if I am interested?

“No one really explains it to you,” DeShields says. “It was kind of like, [Mike] called me [and said], ‘When can I start reaching out to teams?’ I’m like, ‘I guess whenever you can.’ And then all of a sudden, it’s Zoom meetings — boom, boom, boom.”

DeShields had a checklist of things she was looking for in her new destination. She wanted to go to a team where she could contribute right away, a team with a solid mix of veterans and young players, a team that could contend for a championship and an organization that treated its players well and offered top-notch facilities and amenities. Lastly, she wanted a fresh start, a situation where she didn’t have any history with her teammates and coaches.

After DeShields spoke with about seven teams, there was mutual interest with four that fit her criteria, including Phoenix, Dallas and Los Angeles.

“[Diamond] was in a position where she could reinvent herself to get back to that 2019 [season] where more than half the teams would have offered the max contract for multiple years,” Cound says. “But we weren’t really there. Plus some teams that would have done it didn’t have it because of some decisions they’d made.”

(Courtesy of Diamond DeShields)

Despite the difference in time zones and being restricted to Zoom calls instead of meetings in person, inquiring teams did the best they could to shower DeShields with praise and attention. Some teams had their entire staff on the call, others had her speak with the general manager one day and the coach the next. The methods were unique, but they compounded to create one lasting effect.

“It was pretty hot. I definitely felt wanted,” DeShields says. “It was nice to talk with teams who still believed in me as the player that I believed that I could be.”

***

One of Jim Pitman’s first phone calls during the opening weekend of free agency was to DeShields. The Mercury general manager wanted her to know he thought she’d be a great fit with the team.

“We really felt that we needed a bigger athletic wing to complement the pieces we already had on our team,” Pitman says. “We had always liked Diamond’s skill set, and when she became available, we made a play to get her. We believe she is one of the most athletic players in the league. Her ability to score and defend from the wing position, her skills in transition and her competitive spirit really fit with what we have put together in Phoenix.”

As soon as he got word from Cound that DeShields was on board, Pitman began working on the intricacies of what would become a three-team trade between Phoenix, Chicago and the Indiana Fever.

“After several calls with James Wade regarding a sign-and-trade deal and then eventually with Tamika Catchings as part of a three-team deal, we were able to agree on terms to get the trade done,” he says.

The Mercury, in return for DeShields, sent Bria Hartley plus their second-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to the Fever. The Fever received the Sky’s No. 7 pick in this year’s draft and their first-round pick in 2023, while the Sky acquired Julie Allemand from the Fever and the Mercury’s 2023 first-round pick. Once the trade was done, DeShields signed a fully protected, two-year contract with the Mercury for $150,000 in 2022 and $154,500 in 2023.

It wasn’t the max contract she appeared to be heading toward after her 2019 All-Star season, but given the challenges of the past two years and the WNBA’s salary-cap limitations, DeShields and Cound considered it a big win. It also didn’t hurt that DeShields was joining arguably the most stacked roster in the league with championship aspirations.

DeShields says the biggest lesson she learned is not to take these negotiations personally. There’s so much that is out of players’ control. Sometimes, decisions come down to the numbers and what teams are able to do under the salary cap.

“Having a job in the WNBA is one thing. Keeping a job is something totally different,” DeShields says. “And you have to understand your value in the league and the way the rest of the league sees you, right? They might not see you the way that you see yourself. You just gotta keep a level head in the process. You can get emotional highs and lows. But the best thing for me, what I did, I just let my agent do his job.”

Now that DeShields’ near WNBA future is settled, she can sit back and digest it all — even the part about playing with the same Mercury players who traded verbal and physical barbs with the Sky during the Finals.

“I’m sure we’ll have laughs about it and we’ll talk about it. I don’t know. Maybe they’re still pissed about it and they don’t want to talk about it,” DeShields says with a laugh. “I didn’t play as much in the Finals as I wanted to. So it wasn’t really hard for me to detach myself from that experience and put myself in the mentality of like, OK, now you’re on this other team and that’s it.”

DeShields is focused on the future and not the past. She wants to compete and knows that every time she steps in the gym with Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner (whose situation in Russia is still pending), Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and the rest of the Mercury’s stars, the competitive energy is going to be on fire. She’s excited to have fun again, take full advantage of the talent around her and even put up some triple-doubles.

“I see my entire skill set being displayed this summer,” DeShields says. “And that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.