The Five Toughest Players I’ve Ever Guarded

Share
Share

“A scoring guard.”

That’s what they called me.

My whole career, coming up, everyone saw me as an offensive player. I was this shooter, this finisher. In high school I scored at will. At Stanford I broke Lisa Leslie’s scoring record. Scoring was what I was drafted to do in the WNBA. Offense was what I was known for, then paid for.

And no one ever really talked about my defense.

They should have.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 6: Candice Wiggins #2 of the New York Liberty guards her position against the Washington Mystics on June 6, 2015 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Defense is something that, my whole career, I’ve taken pride in. I have always been defensive-minded. In fact, from when I was six, seven years old, playing rec ball, that was how I scored my points. I was always the youngest kid on the court — which, of course, meant that no one ever gave me the ball. And so the only way I’d get my points, back then, was to get steals and turn them into layups. It was defense-first, for me, from the start.

Defense is a mindset. It’s not like you wake up one day and say, “Okay, I’m going to be a defensive stopper. I’m going to be a great defensive player.” A lot of people think it’s like that — that defense is a matter of just, “deciding” — but they’re wrong. It’s skill, and it’s work, and it’s habit.

And there’s an emotional component to defense as well. There are going to be fouls; there are going to be technicals; there is going to be shoving; I’ve gotten punched before, playing D. And to endure that, while staying on your game, you really do need a sort of emotional discipline. You need to harness a certain chaos.

I always tell people: Offense lives on rhythm, but defense lives on tension.

At some point in my WNBA career, I started to notice that on-ball defense at guard was a void. It just seemed to be missing from the league everywhere I went. There weren’t a lot of stoppers.

Eventually, I started to think … well … maybe I could fill that void. Maybe I could help my team in that way.

And so I worked at it. Hard.

Sure enough, as my career progressed, I began to be looked upon more and more to defend. I went from taking pride in my defense to making it my signature strength. No one calls me “a scoring guard” anymore — and I take that as a compliment.

TULSA, OK - SEPTEMBER 6: Candice Wiggins #2 of the Tulsa Shock forces a jump ball against Nneka Ogwumike #30 of the Los Angeles Sparks during the WNBA game on September 6, 2013 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Shane Bevel/NBAE via Getty Images)

Defense is a sacrifice. You’re sacrificing energy, you’re sacrificing shots, and you’re sacrificing credit in the eyes of the casual fan. People aren’t going to look at the box score and see your defense. But I look at it as a sacrifice in the name of a result: the result of winning versus losing. And even though the casual fan might not know, trust me: the team knows. Anyone who needs to know knows. Defense matters.

My personal defensive style is: I’m a terror. Whoever my assignment is, I want to make them miserable. I want to be the only thing they’re thinking about. I want to get in their head, their mind, and stay there.

And part of that style, I think, comes back to my roots as a scorer. Because when I’m thinking, “What will annoy my opponent?” what I’m really thinking is, “What would annoy me?” In my days as a scorer, for years and years, teams would send their best defensive player at me. And when that would happen, I would always think to myself, you know, like, “Come on. I could do better than this.”

And now I am.

So in a way, my opponents are me. They’re me in a past life.

It’s like I’m Freddy Krueger.

My offense may have “died” — but I’m back from the dead as your worst nightmare: a defensive stopper.

Candice Wiggins: The Nightmare on Scoring Street. That’s me. 

Here are the five toughest players I’ve ever guarded.

1. Seimone Augustus 

Before I met Seimone, I thought she was an urban legend. I think most of us did. She never would do AAU stuff, traveling stuff, nothing. You would just hear about her. There’s this girl … deep in the Bayou … down in Baton Rouge … who can’t be guarded. It was all very whispered. It was like, Who is this Seimone Augustus? Have you heard the stories? She was a basketball myth.

But then it turned out that she wasn’t a myth. She was very real.

And the stories? All true.

Seimone was unguardable.

I was drafted by Minnesota in 2008, and played with Seimone for five seasons. So technically, in those first five years, I didn’t play against Seimone once. But in reality: I played Seimone more than I played anyone else in the league.

And by that, of course, I mean practice. Practice against Seimone was amazing.

MINNEAPOLIS - JUNE 18: Candice Wiggins #11 and Seimone Augustus #33 of the Minnesota Lynx during a game against the Tulsa Shock on June 18, 2010 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

In basketball, we always talk about space. It’s the invisible component. There are the players, there’s the ball and there’s the space. And when you’re guarding someone, on the ball, space is everything. You’ll go back and forth, battling … but eventually someone is going to own the space. And more often than not, that will determine who owns the possession.

Seimone has never given up her space to anybody. I didn’t think that was how it worked. Coming up, I thought it was, you know: You win some you lose some. But then I watched Seimone in games. And she never lost. Listen: never. She would get that space, time after time, player after player. And then she would just victimize people. Break ankles. Turn to dust. I mean, real crime scenes: Here lies so-and-so. Hooped to death by Seimone Augustus. It was unreal.

And so I took it as a challenge, for practices the next day. I figured that if I could stop Seimone Augustus — just once — then I could stop anybody.

I never did. Maybe I’d get close, sometimes. Maybe I rented that space, once or twice. I never owned it, though.

But that’s the thing — and that’s how good Seimone is, how unguardable she is. Just getting close to stopping her was enough.

That, alone, turned me into a great defender.

Seimone made me.

2. Jia Perkins 

This one might surprise some people, but it shouldn’t. Jia is OG. She’s one of the few players in the league where, guarding them, no matter how hard you try, you’re not going to dictate. She’s so good at creating her own shot, getting her own shot, whenever she wants it. She has this tenacity.

I haven’t been roasted much since I’ve been in the league. In fact, I think I’ve only been roasted — I mean, truly gotten — once. And it was Jia.

I call myself “The WNBA’s Most Wanted.” As in, I’m wanted: dead or alive. I’m the villain. The other team hates me. People love playing with me, but I know they hate playing against me. If the WNBA ran a player poll, “Who do you hate the most?” — I know I’d be No. 1. I know that.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 03:  Candice Wiggins #11 of the Minnesota Lynx jumps for the rebound against Jia Perkins #7 of the San Antonio Silver Stars in the game on June 3, 2012 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

And I like it. To me, it’s a testament to the fact that I’m doing my job. If my job was to make my opponents’ lives miserable, and my opponents liked me, how good of a job could I be doing?

Reaction to my defense usually takes one of two forms: either I’ll get under my opponent’s skin, and they’ll have a bad game, or they won’t let me get under their skin, and they’ll be alright. But with Jia: I’ll get under her skin — and she’ll still have a good game.

Jia just goes toe to toe. She’ll take my challenge, and give it right back to me. She’ll say, you know, “Uh-uh.” Basically, Jia doesn’t take anyone’s shit.

And that’s how she roasted me. I was doing my thing on D — in a way that would make 99 percent of the players in the league back off. But Jia didn’t back off; she came right back. And she got the step on me. And in the WNBA, it’s that quick. That was it. Roasted.

She might not be a household name, but ask anyone who knows hoops about Jia. I’d say she’s the most underrated player in the league.

3. Skylar Diggins

One of the toughest things about the WNBA, and sports in general, is that your friend can become your enemy. Skylar and I have been really close since 2010 — best friends. We played together our first season, and our friendship just grew from there.

I loved playing with her. I love cheering for her. I love being her friend. I love going to the movies with her, the mall, hanging out.

But I hate playing against her.

Because when Skylar and I play against each other, it’s a different story. We go at it.

I remember the very first time we were opponents. I was playing for the Sparks in L.A. I had recently returned from an injury, and was still trying to get my rhythm back. Before I subbed into the game, Skylar was just ripping through us. Ripping. She was getting whatever she wanted.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 5: Skylar Diggins #4 of the Tulsa Shock handles the ball against Candice Wiggins #2 of the Los Angeles Sparks at STAPLES Center on August 5 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

And I just remember thinking to myself, as I checked in, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here … but I know that Skylar ain’t going to get what she wants.”

And the first play, almost instinctively, I just fouled her — super-hard. She was kind of stunned. Honestly, I think we both were. She gave me a look, like, “Oh? Wow.” And I gave her a look back, like, “I gotta do what I gotta do.” When you’re best friends, you don’t even have to say the words.

Skylar is the most mentally tough opponent I’ve ever faced — and I think that’s partly because, through our friendship, she understands my mentality. She understands me better than anyone, times ten. She is the only player in the WNBA that can get into the headspace that I can get into.

And if anything — and Skylar will agree — I’m nicer than her. I’ll get you … but she’ll get you.

Skylar is like my evil twin.

4. Tamika Catchings 

I’m going to shake it up here, and go with a post player.

Tamika is probably the most determined player I’ve ever seen. She’s got this rare spirit about her that is unlike anything else. You’re at her mercy. I’m fearless as a defender — and I’ll take any assignment you give me, and believe I can lock that player down. My mentality is that I can guard anybody. When I’m out there, I’m thinking I can guard Brittney Griner in the post. But with Tamika … her will is just too strong. You feel powerless to stop it.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 14: Candice Wiggins #11 of the Minnesota Lynx guards against Tamika Catchings #24 of the Indiana Fever during the first quarter in Game One of the 2012 WNBA Finals on October 14, 2012 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

When I was in Minnesota, we played the Fever in the 2012 Finals. And I just remember, whenever I got switched onto Tamika in that series — how intense it was. How tough she was for me to get a read on, and for us to contain as a team. She never, ever allowed us to get into our defensive flow. She refused. They beat us in four games.

With Tamika, simply put, there’s no, “She’s off tonight.” With pretty much everyone else in the league, even the greats, you’re going to see nights like those: nights where it’s just not happening for them on the offensive end. And it might take awhile for them to accept it, but eventually they do. You’ll see it in their body language. You know, “Tonight’s not the night.” And as a defender, in that moment, you’re thinking, “Okay. Okay. I’ve got you now.”

But you’ll never see that with Tamika. And that’s what I mean by “will.” If she’s been off for three quarters, it doesn’t matter: you know she’s going to try to make that fourth quarter hers. She just doesn’t accept defeat — not for her team, and not for herself. She’s special.

5. Diana Taurasi 

I’ll never forget the first time I watched Diana play — and it was earlier than you might think.

I was in seventh grade.

Well, more specifically, I was in the summer before eighth grade. Diana was going into her senior year of high school.

I had played Varsity as a seventh grader, and thought I was a pretty big deal. Everybody was like, “Ohhh, Candice, you’re sooo good.” And I remember my first game that summer, in our league at University of California San Diego — it felt like everyone was watching me.

And they were, to an extent.

We were on a side court. There are the side courts, and there’s the main court. And I had a nice little crowd going on my side court — people watching me play and being like, “Look at this seventh grader go.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 13:  Player Name # of the Minnesota Lynx against Player Name # of the Phoenix Mercury during the game on July 13, 2011 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Player Name;Player Name

We had just won our game, and I was feeling pretty good. But as I turned to the crowd, to soak it in, I noticed something. They were gone.

All of a sudden, everyone had flooded to the main court.

And I was thinking, “Wait — what’s going on?” My feelings were a little hurt.

And so I went to check it out.

It was Diana.

I remember just leaning into the crowd … standing on my tiptoes … squirming through people … trying to find space, some small view of the court. That’s how crowded it was. It was Standing Room Only — and barely even that. This was high school girl’s basketball, offseason, and it felt like a rock show. That was Diana.

Diana was a rock star.

And she was making … everything: These wild turnarounds. These powerful, graceful finishes. Threes from what seemed like half-court.

And at some point, during that game, it hit me. It really did. I just knew right then and there: That Diana was greatness. In that packed, airtight UCSD gym, I knew. I truly remember thinking to myself: It is not going to ever get better than this. That is where the top is. This is it.

And that’s honestly how I feel to this day. Eventually someone might come along, and get to as good as where Diana got. But no one will ever be better. And that’s how I’ve felt since I was 12 years old. Diana Taurasi’s it.

But I always missed her, by just a year. When she was finishing high school, I was finishing middle school. When I was leaving high school, she was leaving college. When I was entering college, she was entering the WNBA. So our paths always just missed each other, growing up.

But then I got to the league. And it was exactly what I thought it would be like.

I don’t use this word lightly, but playing against Diana is honestly a privilege. They’re my favorite games to play, by far. She’s just … the measure. It’s that simple. She’s the best. She’s the GOAT.

And I really, really hope that she comes back to the league next year. Because if Diana’s not playing, it feels like that old side court all over again. There’s only one main court. And to me, it will always be the one with Diana Taurasi on it.

 

1440: New York Liberty (Episode One)

Welcome to 1440, a behind-the-scenes documentary series detailing a series of 24 hours — 1440 minutes — in the life of the No. 1 team in the Eastern Division of the WNBA, the New York Liberty. In episode one, the Liberty host West rivals the Minnesota Lynx, and rally to clinch their 2015 playoff berth. ​Photo by Annie Flanagan/The Players' Tribune

Read More