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. Her detours raised questions about her fit as a franchise centerpiece, but the Chicago Sky felt confident enough to take her with their first pick (they also held the No. 4 pick in the draft, which they used on Gabby Williams of Connecticut).
DeShields’s career arc has certainly been different from that of A’ja Wilson, who was 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, who was selected sixth over all by the Dallas Wings on Thursday, transferred to Connecticut after two seasons at Duke and then decided to forgo her final year of eligibility with the Huskies.
Amber Stocks, the coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky, said before the draft that 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 that she understood the criticisms of her past, but did not feel that her choices left her at a disadvantage. As draft prospects entered and exited the building all day, many came over to DeShields, intrigued by her journey.
“Now the girls downstairs are asking me, ‘What’s it 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.”