DiDi Richards didn’t think about developing her personal brand. It just sort of happened.

While playing basketball for four years at Baylor, Richards sported two curly pigtails on the top of her head, which she refers to as “puffs.” During Baylor’s run to the NCAA championship in 2019, Richards started seeing her hair everywhere. It got to the point where she joked that Baylor fans liked her hair more than she did.

“I would see shirts with emblems of my hair, or people would have hats with fake puffs on top,” she said. “So I think that like accidentally became my brand. It wasn’t something I tried to do, it just happened.”

Richards graduated right before NIL opportunities opened up for college players, but now that branding is such a priority for those at the NCAA level, it has a domino effect in the WNBA as well.

The formula seems simple: The more popular players become in college, the more fans will translate to the WNBA.

Recently, many professional players have made it a priority to return to their alma maters, participating in TV broadcasts and events and mingling with fans. Not only does this give them the opportunity to relive memories with their former programs, it also helps to bridge the gap between WNBA and college fans.

“All the people that are at that school, it just shows them where the game is going on the women’s side,” said Kelsey Mitchell, who recently returned to Ohio State for two games. “It’s crazy how, when you go back, how many people you remember, and when you have conversations with them you are able to reconnect.”

Mitchell says she was able to converse with Buckeyes fans who have now become Indiana Fever fans since the guard went second overall to the team in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

On Sunday, when No. 5 UConn plays No. 1 South Carolina, Napheesa Collier will be able to do the same when she returns to Connecticut. Collier is also looking forward to bringing her daughter, Mila, around the program for the first time since she was born in May.

A lot has changed for the new mother since she left UConn, but Huskies fans have not.

Collier says she sees UConn fans at her WNBA games with the Lynx, and that the people who watched her in college have stayed loyal to her and other Huskies in the pros.

“I don’t think that is the case for everyone though,” she said. “You see a lot of diehard fans and alumni and things like that at college games, and then you see a drop-off when it comes to the league.”

UConn is a historic program with a passionate fanbase, and Collier says she feels lucky to have that kind of support behind her, no matter where she is playing. But even the fanbases of other well-known programs don’t always translate from one league to another.

When Richards was at Baylor for the Bears’ rivalry game against Texas on Jan. 22, many of the fans didn’t even know she was in the WNBA, and that shocked her.

“They saw me and they were like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing now? Are you enjoying life after basketball?’ Some people honestly don’t know that there is a next step and that I’ve taken that next step,” she said.

Richards thinks much of that disconnect stems from the older generation of fans. The younger ones follow her and other players on social media, so they see her posting about the WNBA. For those that don’t, there need to be other avenues for increasing visibility, such as visits to campus and the NIL market.

Current college stars like Aliyah Boston, Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers are already growing their personal brands and becoming household names, and they will only bring more attention to the WNBA when they turn pro.

Individual marketing endeavors also open doors for other players to negotiate deals.

“I think players like Paige are setting the bar really high,” Collier said of her fellow Husky. “It helps because you can use her as a comparison. Like, ‘OK, we know you have the money because you paid her this,’ or, ‘We know you have the resources because we’ve seen it already.’ So it gives us a leveraging point.”

The NIL era changed things drastically for college athletes, and though they missed out on it themselves, Richards, Collier and Mitchell are happy to see the college game evolving. Not only does it allow student-athletes to make money, but it also educates them on the business side of basketball, something they will need in the WNBA.

“That was something that was new once we left,” Collier said. “Then you are bombarded with trying to get sponsorships and doing activations. You kind of got hit with it all at once. Now they are used to it in college.”

But the increased opportunities can also lead to more stress for student-athletes.

“Coaches have told me that sometimes it can pull focus because players are sometimes more worried about themselves,” Collier said. “You have to have a brand and you have to be marketable for sponsorships to want to pick you up. If you’re not scoring, it becomes harder.”

Overall, Collier is thrilled about the addition of NIL opportunities, as are other WNBA players who missed out on the market.

“These kids work hard,” Mitchell said. “They tap into their craft day in and day out. They are sharpening their iron. I think they should enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

And if those fruits transfer to the WNBA, all the better.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Have you ever thought about having a regular conversation with a WNBA player? Say, over coffee or just hanging out at a backyard barbecue? That’s the kind of vibe I aim for with And One — a regular series for Just Women’s Sports involving 10 questions. I ask about basketball things, of course, but also about their lives off the court so you can get to know the players of the WNBA a little bit better.

After the New York Liberty wrapped up a recent afternoon practice, DiDi Richards stepped off to the side to chat with me over the phone. She sounded as relaxed as if she had just been at the nail salon, one of her other favorite hangout spots besides the basketball court. Richards may only be in her second season in the WNBA, but she’s already made quite an impression. Her relentless defense, ability to inject her team with energy and ignite the crowd, and one-of-a-kind pregame fits have made her a fan favorite — not only in the Big Apple but across the league.

Richards’ WNBA career is just getting started after New York selected her in the second round of the 2021 draft. A hamstring injury sidelined her earlier this season and she’s had to work her way back to the court, appearing in only 13 games so far. The Liberty (13-20) have three games left this week to try to secure one of the remaining two playoff spots.

Not even two years removed from an on-court collision that left her temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, the former Baylor guard and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year is still coming into her own on the court. We talked about her goals to become a better all-around player, the Liberty’s new coaching staff under Sandy Brondello, her experience taking part in the “We Are The W” documentary and, of course, fashion.

1. What were your overall thoughts about this Liberty team heading into the season?

I mean, I was excited. You could see all of the potential on the team so I was excited to get the preseason started. Plus, me not going overseas, I was just really excited to play basketball on its own.

2. What were some of the steps you wanted to take individually in your second year in the WNBA?

Just being more of a defensive anchor, whether that’d be guarding the best player, not the best player, being able to use help principles, an on-ball defender, and to be a threat offensively. Not like the offensive threat, but just someone they can respect.

(Laughs) My entire offensive game. Shooting, actually.

3. How have you been able to get back into the groove on the court and with this team after being out for a month with an injury?

It’s still a work in progress. But it’s been helpful having a team that is as supportive as they are, whether that be my coaching staff or my teammates. They constantly encourage me and tell me that it’s my time, just keep getting comfortable and keep getting better. They’re real patient with me. So I’m very thankful for that. It’s been frustrating … to say the least.

4. The Liberty struggled in May, played well in June, were up and down in July and found a spark in your first couple of games in August. What’s the reason for the switch?

I think people forget that we have a new coach and we’re also still a young team. We have a whole new staff, a whole new offense it feels like. So it was just honestly getting accustomed to the offense and buying into the offense and into our coaches. So once we did that, it was uphill from there.

5. What does this team need to do to lock up one of those final playoff spots?

Win. We need to win (laughs). That’s the one thing we need to do.

6. What was it like being involved with and featured in the “We Are The W” documentary?

It was super special. For me being a rookie, my first year, and being able to be a part of the “We Are The W” film was kind of humbling — that I was even picked for that and thought about for that film. It was super exciting to be with Izzy (Harrison) and Angel (McCoughtry), who are well-established players. While we weren’t filming, I would definitely be picking their brains for off-the-basketball-court, on-the-basketball-court stuff, for sure.

7. Who are some of your favorite fashion icons?

One of them, I think Devin Booker. He’s very minimalist, like he doesn’t do too much. He stays well within himself and he’s very, very comfortable with what he wears. So, I think him and PJ Tucker. I’m super girly and they’re super not, like — they’re them. And I think that’s kind of cool.

8. If you weren’t playing professional basketball, what would you be doing?

I’d be modeling. It’s definitely in the works. I spent my offseason trying to figure out different ways to get into that industry. So, this is my second offseason and I’m excited to see what it has to offer.

9. What’s something WNBA fans would be surprised to know about you or wouldn’t expect?

Um … that I’m super … I second-guess myself a lot. Like, I’m not as comfortable as I look. I don’t know why people say that (laughs). But I’m super, like, in my own head. Or for the longest time, I really didn’t feel like I was good enough. So I think that’s something that’s shocking about me or people always find it shocking.

10. Who’s the best dressed on the Liberty roster?

I can’t say myself? (Laughs)

I’m just gonna say me.

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.