The Chicago Sky have endured a challenging start to the season, partly due to injuries. Despite the setbacks with missing players, the team has managed to stay afloat in the early postseason picture, with star players Kahleah Copper and Marina Mabrey leading the way.
The strong contributions from Copper and Mabrey, the top two leading scorers on the team, are expected based on their performances in recent seasons. But one of the pleasant surprises of 2023 has been the performance of Alanna Smith. She has played a significant role in the success of a Sky team that is in transition after an offseason during which they lost many key contributors to their 2021 WNBA championship.
Smith started the 2023 season on the bench but was bumped up to the starting lineup after Morgan Bertsch suffered an ankle injury in the team’s third game of the season on May 26. Smith is averaging career highs in points per game (10.3 PPG), rebounds per game (6.8 RPG), assists per game (2.2 APG), blocks per game (1.8 BPG), and minutes per game (27.4 MPG). Before this season, her career high in a regular season game was 14 points; she has surpassed that total four times already this year.
Smith is enjoying a breakout season in Chicago, but her WNBA career has not gone as smoothly as people may have anticipated. Adversities have crossed her path, including injuries and having limited (or no) playing time coming off the bench.
Considered a first-round prospect after a successful career at Stanford, Smith was drafted eighth overall in the 2019 draft by the Phoenix Mercury. She joined a team coached by Sandy Brondello, who had prior experience coaching Smith in international competition representing their native country of Australia. Smith joined a team that was one win away from a Finals appearance the season before. As a rookie, she got to play alongside and learn from experienced star players like Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, and DeWanna Bonner. Unfortunately, her rookie season was cut short due to an ankle injury that she ended up getting surgery for. She averaged just 1.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG, and 7.5 MPG in 18 regular season games.
During the following season in the Wubble, she averaged 6.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, and 15.6 MPG in 19 regular season games. With more minutes on the court as a second-year player, it looked like a positive sign for Smith going into the next season.
However, that proved to not be the case. In the 2021 season, she averaged 1.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG, and 6.5 MPG in 18 regular season contests. Her last game in a Mercury uniform was watching the Sky celebrate clinching the championship in Wintrust Arena during the 2021 Finals. In three seasons with the Mercury, she never started in a game and could not establish a meaningful role of consistent, positive contribution on a team that was competing for a championship.
Before the 2022 season, Smith was a free agent and signed a training camp contract with the Indiana Fever, a team with multiple newly drafted rookies and in the middle of a rebuild. She made it past training camp but was cut after playing only nine regular season games, averaging 4.3 PPG, 2.7 RPG, and 12.8 MPG.
Smith’s WNBA future entered into a state of even more uncertainty, and after not making the Australian Opals’ roster for the FIBA World Cup competition in Sydney, she went overseas to play in Poland (AZS AJP Gorzów Wielkopolski for Basket Liga Kobiet) toward the end of the calendar year. Smith had a wildly successful season abroad. She was named the MVP of the league and averaged 21.5 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, and 2.6 BPG. While still playing in Poland, Smith signed with the Sky this past February. The tide began to turn for the better.
Now Smith is back on a WNBA roster, but she finds herself on a Sky team that has been affected by player absences this season. Bertsch missed a few weeks because of her ankle injury but has now returned to the rotation. However, Rebekah Gardner and Isabelle Harrison are still out due to significant injuries. Ruthy Hebard has yet to play after having her first child, and Kristine Anigwe (who was signed as the replacement player for Hebard) is currently overseas.
With Chicago navigating the season shorthanded, Smith has been asked to step up and play more minutes. And she is rising to the occasion for the Sky. Under the leadership of James Wade and his coaching staff, Smith is playing at a higher level in the WNBA than she ever has before. Some of her best career games have come this season.
During a 77-62 road loss against the Los Angeles Sparks on June 9, Smith scored a career-high 19 points and had a career-high five blocks to go along with nine rebounds.
In a 77-76 home loss to the New York Liberty on June 2, Smith had arguably the best shooting game of her career, and her stellar performance came against a team led by her former Mercury and Opals coach, Brondello. Smith finished with 18 points on seven-of-seven shooting from the field (four-of-four from three-point range), six rebounds, and three assists.
On June 6, Smith and the Chicago Sky enjoyed a 108-103 overtime victory in Wintrust Arena against the Fever, the same team that cut Smith a year ago. During the contest, Smith not only tallied 18 points, five rebounds, and five assists but also successfully executed an after-timeout play to send the game into overtime. After setting a screen to help Mabrey lose her defender (Victoria Vivians), Smith received a bounce pass from Mabrey while running to the rim with an open look to tie the game via a layup.
Her reaction says it all. Smith experienced what must have been the most thrilling clutch moment in her WNBA career on the very same court where her chances to win a championship in 2021 as a bench player out of the rotation ended.
Smith has always possessed the skills necessary to thrive in the WNBA. She can stretch the floor with her three-point shooting and can get crafty with her scoring at the rim. Even though she is not the quickest player, she can hang tough and stick with the players that she guards. She’s also a capable blocker and rebounder at 6’4”. Now we are finally getting to see Smith’s skills shine in the W.
For Smith to further maximize her productivity, she needs to stay out of foul trouble. So far this season, Smith has accrued at least four fouls in six different games. The Sky need her to avoid having her minutes limited due to fouls, especially when the team has been dealing with multiple player absences. If Smith stays on the floor instead of on the bench, she can continue to build on a season that has her in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award.
It has been a challenging journey for Smith, but it looks like she has finally etched out a long-term spot for herself in this league. She just needed a team with the right situation for her to take advantage of the opportunities presented, and she earned that chance with the Sky. Smith has not only persisted but also delivered as one of the best Chicago Sky players this season.
As Smith recently tweeted, “everyone’s path is different, I’m just grateful for the chance to play the sport I love.”
Stats as of 6/21. Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of WNBA.com.