Indiana Fever rookie NaLyssa Smith has a history of buckling up, rising to the occasion, and never backing down. Smith did so in college, averaging over 20.0 points a game and leading Baylor to a 28-7 record in the 2021-22 regular season. Now in the WNBA, Smith is continuing to stand up to one arduous task after another, evolving before our eyes.
There’s no sugarcoating it: Indiana’s season has spiraled out of control. After starting the year 2-2, the Fever sputtered to a 5-19 record on the season before the All-Star break. However, Smith is helping the Fever do something that they haven’t been able to achieve in recent seasons: Smith is giving fans a glimpse at a promising and electric future.
In her first season in the league, Smith is averaging 13.6 PPG and 8.0 RPG, shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. The second overall selection in the 2022 WNBA draft is already a force to be reckoned with, willing the Fever to the finish line in their last three victories.
But Smith’s phenomenal season isn’t fully captured by the raw numbers. The rookie forward is already unlocking new aspects of her game that weren’t displayed in college. Last year while playing at Baylor, Smith made just nine three-pointers in 35 games. This year Smith has flashed as a pick-and-pop presence, hitting 30 of her 78 attempts from deep in just 26 games.
Simply put, when Smith is hitting from beyond the arc, the Fever are a more potent offensive unit. In the team’s third victory of the year, Smith matched her second-highest career mark in threes, hitting three in various fashions. With the shot shown below, Smith lingered back behind the arc and got an open look off an extra pass from Kelsey Mitchell.
Shortly after the previous bucket, Smith had a phenomenal sequence, blocking an opponent before running the floor and getting in prime position to hit another three-ball. Smith got the block and into shooting formation in less than three seconds, which completely opened up the Fever’s offense in a simple but effective way. This kind of play is something she didn’t display as often at the collegiate level.
In addition to developing her three-point shooting, Smith has done a ton of off-ball work this season, making it easy for dominant playmakers—like Kelsey Mitchell and Danielle Robinson—to shine. This was especially evident in the Fever’s June 19 win over the Chicago Sky. In the following play from that matchup, Smith feigns a screen to draw both defenders to Mitchell, a noted scoring threat, only to slip by unnoticed and get inside for a mid-range score over some tough defense.
In the same quarter, Smith showcased both on-ball and off-ball prowess during the play shown below. Here she set up a wonderful screen to open herself up for the pass and then used some crafty dribble moves to get the pull-up jumper to fall.
While Smith put on a great performance on June 19, her masterclass came earlier in the month during the Fever’s June 12 win over the Minnesota Lynx, registering 21 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal. All of these tallies are the best, second-best, or third-best career marks for the Baylor product. Per Across the Timeline, only two other players in WNBA history have put up 20-plus points, 14-plus rebounds, four-plus assists, and two-plus blocks in a game as a rookie: Candace Parker in 2008 and A’ja Wilson in 2018.
In this matchup against the Lynx, Smith showed exactly what she could consistently do for this Fever team. She can generate looks for teammates out of the paint, run the floor, get out in transition, shoot the ball, you name it. Smith can deliver on both ends of the floor.
On the offensive end as a playmaker, Smith has pulled a variety of intriguing dimes out of her bag this season. In this play from the June 12 game, Smith throws an effortless cross-court pass to an open Destanni Henderson for an easy deep ball.
Later in that same game, Smith threw a similar pass to Queen Egbo, finding her in a narrow passing lane disrupted by two defenders.
Smith’s most exciting pass in the Lynx win showed her growing ability to make reads as a ball handler, finding a cutting Danielle Robinson for an easy dump off inside for the score.
While Smith has a way to go before becoming a lead initiator, these signs are incredibly encouraging for the Baylor product.
Despite all of Smith’s wondrous rookie performances, she’s still susceptible to the occasional poor showing. Indiana’s success has been tightly bound to the quality of Smith’s performances, which is both a good and a bad thing. When the rookie goes off, the Fever win. However, in Indiana’s three worst losses of the season thus far, Smith averaged only 8.7 PPG, compared to 14.3 PPG in all other games. In the Fever’s June 23 loss to the Dallas Wings, Smith put up as many points as fouls (four) and made just 25.0 percent of her shots, resulting in a season-worst 26-point loss.
Still, the good vastly outweighs the bad. Smith has only been held in single figures seven times so far this season. While Smith wasn’t named an All-Star in her first season, there’s little doubt that Smith’s future is incredibly bright. Per Across the Timeline, Smith was just the 17th player in WNBA history to record a double-double in their league debut. She became only the third Fever rookie to do so, joining the company of Tamika Catchings and Natasha Howard. And in the 2022 skills challenge that Smith participated in as part of the All-Star festivities, the rookie made it to the finals. What Smith has accomplished thus far in her rookie season shines a light on her grit. Smith backs down to nobody, standing up to the best of the best night in and night out—just look at how she handles both DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones on the following play.
Normally a two-person game between DeWanna Bonner and Jonquel Jones means trouble for the defense but watch this great recovery by NaLyssa Smith to strip DB after working to contain Jonquel. pic.twitter.com/rHot7JTMeD
— Evin Gualberto (@evin_gual) July 13, 2022
So before writing this year off as another lost season for Indiana, look at how Smith is responding to adversity, rising to the call, and leading with a maturity found both on and off the court. Smith may be one of the keys to turning the Fever’s luck right side up.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of WNBA Stats.