by Matthew Snyder

She’s the 6-1 daughter of a former Major League Baseball star and an All-American track athlete at the University of Tennessee. Her brother was the eighth pick in the 2010 MLB draft. She learned early on that it is only through discipline that you achieve your highest dreams. 

For her, that’s basketball.

For a while, though, it seemed certain she’d pour her relentlessness into tennis. She trained in Florida with Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena. But basketball was always there, waiting patiently. And between AAU and school ball, she figured, she was already spending so much time with this game. 

Years after she was certain she would quit it, she decided to go all-in.

And oh, man, is she doing that this season for the University of North Carolina, in her own inimitable way. 

There was that game against archrival Duke in mid-February, when she donned the vaunted sky blue and stood amidst the Cameron Crazy swirl. Standing in front of them, their hands all flaying, she…

Yawned? Oh, yes.

When the crowd gets rowdy and they’re talking trash, I’m like, I’m gonna shut you up — right now.

It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience. I’m just out there, going off instincts, my killer instinct kicking in. I don’t hear anything. I know what I’ve gotta do, and I’m gonna do it.

North Carolina won that game. She became the first player to score 30 points against the Blue Devils since 2009. Her best friend, and teammate, added 24. Two games later, she scored 38 against North Carolina State, setting the UNC single-game freshman record. Then, the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils again to seal a regular-season sweep. 

Diamond DeShields is one of the best players in the country. She leads her team in scoring and steals. She displays this presence and this poise, this smoothness and bounce that’s so rare in the game—let alone among kids her age.

Oh, yeah, lest we forget (because she doesn’t get this nearly enough).

She’s just a freshman.

***

People would ask her the question when she’d play for her country—first, at the U18 FIBA Americas, then at the U19 FIBA World Championships, and on. 

What’s it like being the youngest player on the team?

It wasn’t anything, really, she’d reply, before making key contributions. Talent is talent. Why put an age on it?

The narrative has followed DeShields to Chapel Hill this season, where she has emerged as the leading force on an incredibly young, incredibly talented Tar Heels team ranked No. 12 in the country heading into Selection Monday. 

Her 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals come in just 27.1 minutes per game. She’s ladled with superlatives, announcers gushing as she does all these things with superlative ease. 

She upped those numbers in 16 Atlantic Coast Conference games to 19.8 points and 6.1 boards in 29.6 minutes. She shrugged off a heavily taped left wrist—the middle and ring finger wound together, too—that was a caution against a hard fall against High Point back in December. 

She’s doing all this with her best friend. 

At 6-0, Allisha Gray displays a similar multi-faceted threat (two of her favorite players are Kevin Durant and Diana Taurasi). Her 14.3 points are second on the team behind DeShields. She’s hitting 48 percent of her shots, and 42.3 percent of her threes. Gray has two more rebounds, with 175 on the season. DeShields has amassed six more steals. 

They’ve each been named ACC Rookie of the Week three times this season. They’ve each just earned mention on the conference All-Freshman Team. 

And it all began back in middle school, when a soft-spoken girl joined the vaunted Georgia Pistols traveling team. (DeShields is from Norcross, Gray from Sandersville.) 

Gray saw this group of girls who’d played together so long and knew each other so well. It was intimidating. When her new teammates tried to draw her into their conversations, she’d say a few words, that’s all, but mostly stayed silent. 

But the star kept cracking away at that shell. 

“She wasn’t giving up until I talked,” Gray says of DeShields, laughing. “I guess I came around.”

A friendship was born. It was burnished when they headed to nationals. Before long, they’d decided they were going to play together in college. As two of the premier talents in the country, recruited by the powers, the goal quickly became feasible. 

North Carolina emerged from the pack. They had this legendary coach, Sylvia Hatchell, who had this presence, and this style of play, that fit them. In Chapel Hill, they felt at home. “The people were very welcoming and loving, and the campus environment has some good energy,” says DeShields. “It was all positives.”

Hatchell told the incoming freshmen that they could come in and make an immediate impact. They could help push the program over the top. 

But neither DeShields nor Gray has ever played a game for her. Hatchell, winner of 660 games in her 28 years at North Carolina (her overall record stands at 932-329), stepped away from the team in mid-October to begin a treatment program after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

Andrew Calder, the associate head coach, took the helm in the interim, but Hatchell, possessor of an indomitable will, has kept in frequent touch. She meets with the players individually, and gives notes and encouragement. All of the coaches are positive, says Gray, but coming from Hatchell, it means that little something more. 

“She’s the engine,” Gray says. “That makes it very special.”  

Over winter break, Hatchell hosted a party at her house. “It was some nice Christmas cheer,” says DeShields, “especially since we’re away from home.” 

Hatchell learned in mid-January that her cancer is in complete molecular remission. She still hopes to return to the sidelines before the season is up. “I make an effort to play for her struggle,” says DeShields. “It brought us together as a team.”

“We want to play and win for her,” says Gray. “This season is definitely dedicated to her.”

***

They’re always together. 

“People call us Tom and Jerry, Dumb and Dumber, everything,” says DeShields. “We’re just extremely goofy together.”

“Oh, we do a lot of stupid stuff,” says Gray. “Like, when Diamond isn’t looking, I’ll run and jump on her back. She’ll do the same to me.”

Then there’s this academic advisor, Jaimie Lee, and this sociology exam from mid-February. DeShields and Gray are in the same class, and, heading into a study session, they decided they’d try their hand at a little acting.

So Allisha sidles up to Lee with this forlorn look on her face. Turns out she got…a 45 on this test. (Gray did much better.)

“So Jamie was freaking out and stressing, and meanwhile we’re just laughing, and then Jaimie logged on and saw the real grade, and just started laughing, too” says DeShields.

“She’s so nice, and so great, but it’s funny how we do little stuff like that,” says Gray. “We know her really well. You can talk to her, and she stays on top of stuff and makes sure we perform well. You know when it’s time to be serious, but it’s funny to see how she reacts, too.”

Speaking of serious, back to that Duke game in Cameron Indoor for a moment more. 

Gray remembers hearing that student section—well, sort of. “They’re a great group, but you’re in a zone and you barely hear it,” she says. “For me, I don’t smile on the court. I’m told I have a very serious approach. When I score an and-one, I celebrate, but then it’s like, OK, I made it, now it’s time to focus on free throws.” 

It’s been mostly business this season—a thriving one at that—but there’s still moments for levity during the course of a game. Like their self-professed tunnel vision, sometimes it seems like pressure falls flat beside them. 

When DeShields missed a three-pointer minutes into a game against Virginia Tech, the ball becoming lodged between backboard and rim, she smiled, jogged over and leapt to pump it out. 

Oh, she’s been doing that since seventh grade, says Gray.

 She hasn’t been wearing No. 23 since that age, though she’s rocking it this season. Diamond, is there any added pressure to wearing those hallowed digits at North Carolina? 

No, she’ll tell you. She welcomes that challenge. Jordan is her favorite player. And she has the utmost respect for Charlotte Smith, who wore it as well when she led North Carolina to its only National Title, punctuated by her last-second, game-winning shot, in ’94. 

DeShields had always gone with 22. Her father and brother had both worn 11, and as the second DeShields child, she liked the idea of doubling that number.

But Tar Heels sophomore N’Dea Bryant had already picked it. “So I didn’t want to pick a random number,” DeShields says. “I wanted to pick one that had some significance to me. It’s such a prestigious number here because of Michael and Charlotte, and I’m thankful I was granted permission to wear it.

“I’m trying to represent.”

***

This season, DeShields was the first freshman to be named ACC Player of the Week since ’02. Both she and Gray have crested 30 points in a game, the first time a North Carolina frosh has done so since Ivory Latta in 2003-04. (Latta is currently a Tar Heels assistant coach.)

Twenty years ago, North Carolina won that National Title, and now there’s these two first-year players who help constitute such a talented freshman class that wants to add another one to the cupboard.

Both DeShields and Gray were named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team. DeShields earned conference Rookie of the Year, the seventh player to do so during Hatchell’s tenure. She picked up an All-ACC distinction, too. Add that to Xylina McDaniel’s own league Rookie of the Year award a season ago, and you get why there’s such serious buzz building around this very young, very good nucleus.

Will all these accolades distract her? Could it ever get in the way? 

Nope. DeShields has this uncanny ability to tune it all out. As she’ll tell you…

It’s all about getting into a groove, for me. Then, it’s just me and whoever’s on the court. I don’t even pay attention to the officials. It’s kind of weird. Because the game just seems to go, go, go. 

That’s when I’m at my best, getting in that zone when nothing can change me, no one can get into my head, nothing bothers me.