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Wood product Rahsool Diggins finding his groove at UMass in third college season

02/19/2024, 11:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

By Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Rahsool Diggins’ first two years of college weren’t what he envisioned.

The former Archbishop Wood standout endured a year barely playing, suffered a couple injuries, became a father and transferred schools all in an 18-month period, coming into this season yet to fulfill the expectations he’d displayed in four years in the Philadelphia Catholic League. 

Rahsool Diggins (above) and UMass played at La Salle on Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

But he had a message for those who wondered if he was struggling behind the scenes, if he’d lost the fire that made him Catholic League MVP his senior year.

“I want everybody to know, I haven’t lost my confidence,” he said. “That’s been the biggest thing [I’ve heard]: ‘oh, he’s not confident’ But I’m still the same, I’m still confident.”

Though things have certainly changed for the Wood product since his high school years, he’s back to being a high-level performer once again, one of the leaders and most important pieces on a young University of Massachusetts squad. 

“He’s been phenomenal. I couldn’t ask somebody to be more committed to growth than what he has been,” UMass coach Frank Martin said after the Minutemen lost to La Salle this weekend at Tom Gola Arena. “Rahsool’s been great in his daily approach and being the spirit and [...]  continu(ing) to work and stay in a positive space and show the way on a team that’s got eight freshmen and two sophomores.”

The No. 58 recruit in the 2021 class according to ESPN, Diggins started his college career at the University of Connecticut, picking Dan Hurley’s Huskies over the likes of Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina and Florida. But the four-year starter and three time all-PCL First Team selection at Wood found that life wasn’t so easy in college. Diggins only played in nine games as a freshman at UConn, scoring a total of seven points in 46 minutes, hitting the transfer portal at the end of the year.

“I had to go somewhere where I was wanted,” he said. “The biggest thing was I wanted to play, I didn’t want to sit; I sat the whole year, I didn’t want to come off the bench, I wanted to play and get experience.”

He’s clearly found a better landing spot in Massachusetts, even though ironically at first he had to come off the bench for Martin, who took over at UMass last season after 10 years at South Carolina. Diggins played in 26 games (10 starts) his sophomore season, averaging 4.7 ppg and 2.4 apg for the season — an improvement over his freshman year, but things still weren’t quite right.

Diggins (above) is third on the Minutemen in scoring but leads them in minutes played. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Martin said Diggins arrived in Amherst (Mass.) a “fractured” version of himself, adding “he needed to reconnect with his spirit and that commitment to being a good player,” and Diggins didn’t disagree.

“I think that I got into a bad battle with my coach, I can admit,” he said. “I was just fighting coaching a little bit, and not just buying in. This year I’ve totally switched, buying into Coach Frank, because all he’s going to do is tell you the truth and want you to play defense. If I want to make some money in the next life, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

It didn’t help that off the court, Diggins was going through not just an adjustment to a new school but impending fatherhood; his daughter, Raya, was born on Dec. 29, 2022, causing him to miss a game against St. Bonaventure. 

“It’s fun, kinda different,” he said of being a father. “I don’t get to really do too much because I’m always busy [with school and basketball], but she’s at every game, home game.”

His junior year has finally brought stability, peace, and success. Diggins has moved into the starting lineup full-time this year, averaging 12.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg and 2.2 apg after scoring 14 points on Saturday in a game La Salle won 82-81. He’s been an indispensable piece for Martin, leading the Minutemen in minutes played, staying on for 39 minutes against La Salle.

This weekend’s game was a special one for Diggins — not just his return home, but a chance to play against former Wood classmate Daeshon Shepherd, now starting as a junior for the Explorers. 

Diggins was part of a tremendous 2021 class at Archbishop Wood, John Mosco’s program graduating five that year, all of whom are currently playing Division I hoops. Along with Diggins and Shepherd, Marcus Randolph (Saint Peter’s), Jaylen Stinson (Merrimack) and Muneer Newton (Albany). All five are in their team’s rotation, four of the five — excluding Newton, who’s in his first year at Albany after two at NAIA William Penn (Iowa) — are putting up their best collegiate numbers yet. 

That includes Shepherd, who was best known as an above-the-rim athlete off the wing in high school but has turned himself into a well-rounded threat at La Salle, knocking down four three pointers as he scored 19 points in the win over UMass.

“I said, oh now you’re a 3-point specialist, you’re going to make (four) threes today? Contested, too,” Diggins said. “He shot the hell out of the ball today, I was happy for him.

Diggins (above, as a freshman in 2017-18) was a four-year starter at Wood. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I try not to talk to my friends during the game,” he added. “They like to talk to me, but I try not to talk to them. I love playing against them, getting a chance to see them after the game and stuff, but I try not to make too big a deal out of it.”

Mosco, watching from the stands with Wood assistants Tom Boyd, Ed McCormick and Joe Dougherty, was proud of the progress his former players have made over the last few years.

“I think they’re both maturing and getting used to the college game, the physicality,” he said, “and they’re comfortable in their settings, they both have great coaches that are letting them play their game.”

“It’s definitely a good memory, we’ve been playing against each other or with each other our whole lives,” Shepherd said. “It’s a fun experience now that we have bigger roles with our college teams than our previous years, so it was fun to play against him.”

Like in high school, Diggins is one of several talented guards in the backcourt, capable of playing on or off the ball. But while he often was the primary ball-handler for Wood, he’s playing mostly off the ball for the Minutemen, turning into a 3-point specialist who’d taken more shots from the arc (158) than inside it (113) coming into play Saturday, shooting about twice as many 3-pointers as anybody else on his team, and he’s hitting at a 35.4% clip, second-best on the team.

“Some games I get in my own way thinking like I’m playing point guard, trying to make plays for others,” he said, “but the team needs me to be aggressive, space the floor. We don’t have that many 3-point shooters, so for me to shoot the ‘3’ well, I think that’s a plus.”

Saturday’s loss was no doubt a setback for UMass, now 16-9 on the season, 7-6 in the Atlantic 10 Conference, tied for fifth place in the 15-team conference. A top-four seed and double-bye in the league playoffs is still possible, but that would have to start with a win over fourth-place VCU (17-8, 9-3) on Tuesday night. 

But it was a boost for Diggins, who got to see his local barber for a fresh cut the night before the game, got some food from a familiar local spot, got to spend time with family and friends after the game. Consider it a recharge for the stretch run. 

“I just love Philadelphia,” he said. “Anytime I get to touch the soil, I feel good.”

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