Heading into the 2021 season, the New York Liberty had assembled one of the youngest rosters in the WNBA. The Liberty, more than most other teams in the league, attempted to balance development with winning. The success of this approach is evident in a pair of All-Rookie awards and the end of the franchise’s playoff drought, after having languished in the lottery since 2017.
Rookie DiDi Richards—who took advantage of every opportunity during her college days at Baylor and used her aggressive lockdown defense to work her way into the rotation—quickly became a fan favorite for her effort on the court and her charisma off it. With her combination of strength and length, Richards provided a defensive spark for New York.
This offseason, Richards has teamed up with Quest Nutrition and their Rookie Challenge. She took the time to talk with Winsidr about that partnership, about some highlights from her rookie year, and so much more.
Myles Ehrlich, Winsidr: Hey, DiDi. Good to talk to you!
DiDi Richards: Hey Myles! Always good to talk to you.
DiDi: For sure. First off, Quest was my first-ever deal coming out of the NCAA. I didn’t get the privilege of having the NIL, so I was really excited when Quest reached out. They offered me my first commercial and everything. And that went well—I had so much fun doing it.
Shortly after, they reached out to me about this campaign. The Quest Rookie Challenge is a nationwide challenge to award three individuals a $20,000 grant each to help further their personal Quest, to benefit them in their community and what they’ve been doing. So, basically, Quest is reaching out to people who have already been creating a difference in their communities. We’re just trying to lend a helping hand at this point.
It’s super exciting. When they brought it to my attention, I was so for it. It’s just their demeanor and the way they present themselves. It’s really easy to love the way Quest works and the way they operate, because even the rookies they have [for this campaign]are actual rookies, which I think is amazing. So, they went out of their way to get new players fresh out of college, and they found those of us that have a story. I thought that was a cool way for all of us to connect, and they just continue to amaze me.
Winsidr: That’s incredible. How have opportunities like this, as you made the transition from playing in college to being a rookie as a professional, helped you to become a role model in the community, either in New York or back home?
DiDi: Oh, it’s been amazing. I want to stick with Quest because they’re really good about putting us everywhere, whether it be me, the NFL rookie [Ian Book], or the other rookies they have. They’re really good about putting us everywhere and using us. I get calls all the time from back home [in Texas], and I’m really big on just remembering where I’ve come from, and whenever little girls back home post or tag and say, “I saw DiDi Richards,” it means something. It’s all about representation. It gives everyone hope, and gives us something to believe in.
Winsidr: Have there been any fan interactions in particular, especially with those younger Liberty fans, that were especially impactful to you this season?
DiDi: Oh my goodness, I meet fans all the time. I’m terrible with names, but I’m really good about making them feel welcome and feel like they’re important, especially when they’re with me, because I’ve been through moments where I was young and saw my idols, and they shut me down. So, when I see young Liberty fans, I go out of my way to go greet them. Around the second game of the season, I saw the first girl wearing my [WNBA] jersey, and I went and gave her my shoes. It was just this really great feeling because they’re supporting me, and I’m also just super grateful and humbled to see someone look up to me in the way I used to look up to people.
Winsidr: So far this offseason, you, Michaela [Onyenwere], and Betnijah [Laney] have been everywhere, at events around New York City and beyond. What has been your favorite highlight of the offseason so far?
DiDi: Oh my gosh, you are not kidding. We’ve literally been everywhere. I’ve been tired every day. But my favorite so far was this most recent one: Top Shot. It was so friggin’ amazing. Like we had so much fun. We met Quavo that night; we met Capella Grey. He’s an artist, and if anyone knows me… When I saw him, I was like, “No way that’s him.” I was completely starstruck.
Michaela and I went to a Knicks game, too—don’t tell the Nets!—and that was an experience. I was really excited, and we had a great time. But now Mic is leaving, and I’m really sad. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her.
Winsidr: I spoke to Michaela last week at her Rookie of the Year presentation, and she also said that the Top Shot event was one of her favorites, and that her other highlight was going to Disney World with your family. What was that like?
DiDi: *laughing* She did? Disney World was super fun. Let me explain how Mic ended up even coming. I was already going to go to Orlando. My brother [Damian “DJ” Richards] is now in Florida at Montverde Academy on scholarship, so I’m like, “Okay, I’ll go to his first game, and I can’t wait, blah, blah, blah.” That was awesome, but I didn’t want to go by myself. So, I really just whispered it to Mic about four days before we were supposed to leave, and she says yeah! So, we ended up going for this. We’re in Orlando, though we didn’t even plan to go to Disney. But I told her that I’d never been, and she hadn’t been for a long time. So, somehow we ended up in Disney with my family, and it was like the best spur-of-the-moment trip I’ve ever had in my life.
Winsidr: I love that. At Liberty exit interviews, I asked you about your favorite on-court moment of the season. And you said, quote: “I really hate that we lost this Phoenix playoff game because that was hands down the best game. We played so well together, and we jelled as a team.” So, having experienced the one-and-done, what are your thoughts on this new playoff format recently introduced by the league, which now makes the first round matchup a best-of-three, rather than single elimination?
DiDi: Oh my gosh, I think it’s the best thing the W has done in a really, really long time. Not only would it have benefitted us, as we would have been around for at least a couple games longer, but it just benefits us as a W, as a community, because now we’re on TV more and people are seeing us more. I feel like we were cheating ourselves by having the single-game eliminations. We still have just three while everyone else has five, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.
Winsidr: Absolutely. And on the court, you’ve already developed a reputation as a switchable defender who’s capable of guarding just about any position, and this season we saw you at all five positions. So, what was the most difficult transition from college to the pros?
DiDi: There was so much to learn. As much as people want to say, “We’re good, we’re athletes, so we figure it out very quickly,” I actually felt like every game I was saying, “Well, dang, this is happening.” So, it was a couple of things for me.
First and foremost is offense, and that’s because I came from a school that was dominated by posts. So, come into the offense in the W, where it’s four-out one-in, and the one-in is dang near my height, and she can dribble and bring the ball up. So, basically, five guards out there. I think that was the biggest adjustment for me because I was so used to a pick-and-roll set or a pick-and-pop, stuff like that. And, with the Liberty, that wasn’t really our identity.
And on the other end, defensively, in college I could probably shut down anybody. Like, in college, their worst nightmare was me. Out here [in the W], I had to really suck it up. Okay, Arike tonight. Okay, Jewell Loyd next. Okay, Courtney Williams this night. I was just getting hit from all angles up here.
Winsidr: We’ve talked about this before, but I’m going to bring some of these numbers back because it talks specifically about that offensive transition you talked about. In four years at Baylor, you attempted one total three-pointer. This past season, you took 22 threes and knocked down 10, and your 46 percent from deep led all rookies. You’ve credited assistant coach Dustin Gray with helping your development, but can you walk me through how all that progress went down?
DiDi: It was a grind, for sure. And there were a lot of frustrating days where I would try and go back to my old tactics or whatever, but Dustin was really patient with me. Off rip, when I first got drafted and we went out there, Dustin worked me out, and he just basically wanted to watch me shoot for the first couple of days. Then, finally, he decided to break my whole shot down. This is probably about game two. So, I’m thinking, “Oh my god, I’m really about to suck. I don’t have a regular shot anymore.”
I was coming off this [hamstring]injury from college, but he just told me to trust the process. And I did—I wanted to change my game for the better, and this is the next big thing for me.
Winsidr: Taking that leap of faith does sound really scary. Especially now, when we’re at this weird time where the talent in the league has significantly outgrown the roster sizes. Unfortunately, you saw a lot of that with your rookie class: a lot of players that were very talented just didn’t get the opportunity to see the court or even to make the team. Where do you draw your confidence from, and what tips would you have for young aspiring female athletes?
DiDi: It’s about believing in yourself and knowing what you do best. In my opinion, you couldn’t take me off the court defensively. So it was kind of like, well, if I can’t shoot for these couple games, because I’m trying to figure myself out, I’m sure as heck going to get a layup. You’re not gonna score, but I’m gonna find a way to score. It was one of those things where I bet on myself, and it worked out in my favor because I had the right people in my corner.
Winsidr: I want to bring it way back for a minute. How old were you when you first started playing basketball? And when did you know that a career in basketball was something that you wanted for yourself?
DiDi: I started playing basketball at about 11 years old. I hated it with all my heart. I hated the sweat, everything. But I knew that it was something that I was actually good at around seventh, eighth, ninth grade. I got my first offer at 12, and it was coincidentally from Baylor. But once I got my first offer—I wanted to be a doctor at the time—I thought, “Well, I’m going to do this to go to Baylor to be the doctor that I want to be,” and then I started getting better, and the competitive juices started flowing a little bit more, which is when the WNBA started coming into focus.
Winsidr: I’m sure that the Baylor basketball schedule wasn’t forgiving enough to handle pre-med classes, too. That sounds like a lot to take on.
DiDi: Exactly. It was not gonna work out.
Winsidr: At the risk of showing my age a little bit, I remember when the W first started 25 years ago. As the league grows and as exposure grows, there are more and more avenues for access for young fans. What was your introduction to the WNBA? How old were you when the league first popped up on your radar?
DiDi: It was around the time when I started believing that I could make it. But the coverage was terrible. I didn’t even know that there was a women’s professional league. At the same time, though, I wasn’t a sports person, so that might have been on me, too.
Winsidr: I always love to talk to athletes about their origins and how they got into the league because it’s only 25 years old. Coverage has been increasing exponentially, but we’re still working on that growth. Who were some of the hoopers that you looked up to growing up?
DiDi: In high school, I wanted to mirror my game off of Kevin Durant. It was like we were the same kind of body build: long and skinny and everything. But then in college, I developed a pass-first mindset. So I changed, and then I was looking more at point guards like Chris Paul, somebody that controls the game at all times. I thought it was pretty cool that they could do that. I looked at Chris Paul, at Steve Nash highlights, legendary point guards that didn’t really shoot as much.
Winsidr: Well, now you’re in the building with two of those players, in KD and Steve Nash. Have you gotten the opportunity to hang with them and pick their brains a little bit?
DiDi: I’ve talked to KD. We talked to [a bunch of]the Nets players, though I haven’t been around Mr. Nash, but their players are good about having a sisterhood/brotherhood between the Nets and the Liberty. They give their insight, we give our insight, and we keep it pushing, so it’s cool being in the building with them.
Winsidr: There has definitely been a great partnership going on. I hope that both squads continue to take advantage of the opportunity that comes from sharing the same building.
Speaking about partnership, I want to pull it back to Quest for a minute, because you’re a judge in the Quest Rookie Campaign. As you said, it’ll award three individuals each a $20,000 grant, which sounds like a great opportunity for someone to kickstart their own professional lives. So how would someone best present themselves to DiDi Richards, the judge? What are you looking for?
DiDi: Honestly, I’m just looking for someone that knows their stuff and believes in what they do. So whatever your brand, your business, whatever you do for the community, I just want you to know the ins and outs. I want you to know, first and foremost, where you want this to go, and what you want your community to look like afterwards. So, my biggest thing is just knowing what’s next for you and what’s next for your brand.
Winsidr: Gotcha. When you’re in season on game day, do you have any special rituals or superstitions or a game day diet that you need to adhere to? What gets you going, what gets you ready for a game day?
DiDi: On a game day, I get there three hours before the game and I go to shoot. After that, I go and get one of my favorite Quest bars, the Quest Gooey Caramel Candy Bars. Love it. I’ll eat it while I’m getting taped, along with a cup of fruit, and then I’m ready to go back on the court. That’s always my routine, and it works. Some days, if I forget something, I feel like it translates to my game. It might be a mental thing, but I really do feel like it makes a difference. So going forward, I will not be messing up the routine.
Winsidr: What’s the rest of your offseason looking like now that you’re back home? And what on-court goals do you have heading into your sophomore year?
DiDi: Offseason, it’s looking like I’ll be in New York. I’ll come home for holidays and for different things to see my mom, but I like my space. So I’ll be in New York, and I’ll be working out and meeting with people that can progress my game. I’m trying to get my ball-handling back tight. In college, I was able to get away with some loose things, so I’m trying to tighten up. I like to be on the ball, whether that’s playing guard or whatever else, because I want to be in control of different things. And it’s hard, since we have people playing defense the way they do in the W.
So, I’m trying to perfect my ball-handling and just get my shooting back. Like, I want it to be crazy. I get that I made this big jump from college to my rookie year. Now, I want to make an even bigger jump from my rookie year to sophomore year and just keep going up. I want to get better off the dribble shooting and creating my own shot because, right now, I’m more of a catch-and-shoot kind of girl. So, there’s a lot on my list that I’m going to check off, and I just know that it’s going to be an exciting year.
Winsidr: Some of my favorite moments watching this season were when you were going on those heaters and were not letting Coach Walt [Hopkins] take you out of the game. So, I’m excited to hear you adding to your game because they need you defensively, and if you can bring that offensive game up so where you’re creating your own shot, that’s really exciting for the team.
Before I let you go, I want to give you the floor to elevator pitch the 2022 New York Liberty to WNBA fans that might be repping the wrong squad right now. What makes this team special already, and how do you build on that next season?
DiDi: Simply—chemistry and how fun we are to watch, whether that’s on the court or at events. In the game, we’re just an exciting team to watch. Now, what makes us special next year is the experience we gained this year. We were just a really young team [last season]. At every position, we were young; we had first-years, second-years, and then we had first-year vets, second-year vets. We were just young, and now we have experience with our roles, with what we want to do to get better, now that we know what the team needs. I have no doubt in my mind all of us are out perfecting our games. I’m super excited to see us in April and through next summer, and the fans should be, too.