By the time DeShields was in eighth grade, scouts were comparing her to Candace Parker. A few years earlier, DeShields was a promising tennis talent who trained under Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams. After an exceptional prep career, she chose to enroll at North Carolina.
Despite garnering multiple national freshman of the year awards, DeShields departed after only one season with the Tar Heels, later admitting she acted like a “knucklehead” as a freshman.
She transferred to Tennessee, where her mother, Tisha, was an All-American heptathlete (her father, Delino, played 13 years in the major leagues and her brother Delino Jr. is an outfielder with the Texas Rangers.) Expected to lead the Lady Volunteers back to national prominence, DeShields scored 1,018 points in two seasons, but Tennessee failed to advance past the regional finals of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“My college career wasn’t the best,” DeShields said. “It wasn’t even like half of what I expected it to be, but it all led me to this moment. As I get drafted, the thing I feel I need to prove is I can be consistent and I can be that player that I wasn’t at the college level.”
Last April, she announced her intention to return for another year, even though she would graduate in the spring of 2017. In an impassioned Instagram post, DeShields vowed to be a leader, writing that she had a second chance “to do things the right way.”
Two months later, after going home to Georgia to evaluate her position, DeShields informed Tennessee that she was leaving and signed with Cukurova in Turkey.
“As a collegiate athlete, there’s a kind of uniformity to it and a second level depending where you go,” DeShields said. “Being at Tennessee, there’s a Lady Vol way — ‘This is how Lady Vols do things, this is how Lady Vols behave, this is how Lady Vols talk, this is how we walk.’ I’m blessed to have gone to Tennessee and been a part of that, but there always is the personal side of everybody that is maybe different from what the university has sculpted as their idea. That’s why I say I’m a unicorn.”
Overseas, DeShields said she learned to be more aggressive playing with and against tougher competition. She also spent more time watching film and scouting opponents.
“I used to kind of take more breaks because I could,” DeShields said. “Before I was able to maneuver on the court better than most people because of my natural ability. Now I want to dominate.”
According to the Eurobasket website, DeShields averaged 16.5 points for Cukurova. She is still viewed as a possible top 3 pick in this year’s class. But her detours have raised questions about her fit as a franchise centerpiece.
“I think there’s a little bit of, what exactly are we getting with Diamond DeShields?” said Rebecca Lobo, a basketball analyst for ESPN, which will broadcast Thursday night’s draft.
Lobo added that DeShields’s chance to cultivate her talent in a competitive European league were positives for her draft stock, but that her transfer and surprising decision to leave Tennessee after declaring her intent to stay could be viewed as negatives by teams.
DeShields’s career arc has certainly been different than that of A’ja Wilson, who is expected to be selected first by the Las Vegas Aces and has been a model of stability throughout her career. Wilson was born in South Carolina and stayed in-state through college, where she led the Gamecocks to the national title in 2017.
But DeShields’s choices are not unprecedented. Epiphanny Prince notably left Rutgers early in 2009 to play in Turkey and Russia before entering the W.N.B.A. Transfers are increasingly becoming the norm in the women’s college game. Azura Stevens, also expected to be a high pick on Thursday, transferred to Connecticut after two seasons at Duke and then decided to forgo her final year of eligibility with the Huskies.
Still, Amber Stocks, the coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky — which own the third and fourth picks in the draft — said she would take into consideration DeShields’s history and that of any potential selection.
“Skill is a broad term that we often use just to identify talent on the court,” Stocks said. “But competitive character, managing through the mental and emotional grind of a season, is a skill that special players are able to do it at a different level.”
At the W.N.B.A. headquarters in Midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, DeShields said she understood the criticisms of her past, but did not feel that her choices left her at a disadvantage. As draft prospects flooded in and out of the building all day, many came over to DeShields, intrigued by her journey.
“Now the girls downstairs are asking me, ‘What it’s like, what’s different?’” DeShields said. “When I made my decision to turn pro, it wasn’t in a sense of who’s done this before, who can I call to ask? I was like, I’m going. I don’t know who’s done it, I don’t care who’s done it. I feel good about it so I’m going to do it.”