One of the great joys of the Seattle sub-regional was having the opportunity to meet Texas A&M coach Gary Blair. I personally found the guy hilarious - he's probably one of the better storytellers in women's college basketball... or perhaps as Gonzaga University coach Kelly Graves said, "A master of hyperbole."
After he mentioned to the press during the pre-tournament media day that WNBA scouts were "looking pretty hard" at senior small forward Tanisha Smith, I wanted to get his thoughts on what Smith offers a WNBA team and what she still needs to work on. Smith is a player that has not gotten quite as much attention as other prospects who are clearly less athletic and less versatile, if not less skilled.
A few questions turned into a ten minute conversation as the team headed to the bus after practice the day before a heartbreaking 72-71 loss to Gonzaga. What began as a conversation about about Smith and her WNBA potential, led to implicit commentary on the WNBA, insight into how Van Chanellor filled the final two spots on his Houston Comets' rosters, and the suggestion that Nolan Richardson "have a conversation with Rick Pitino" about the transition from college to the pros, all while getting through most of a bag of Cheetos.
Full transcript of the chat after the jump.
For more on Smith: WNBA Draft Capsule: Tanisha Smith, small forward, Texas A&M
Q. McCall: So I just wanted to ask about Tanisha Smith again, just her development since the time you recruited her to where she is now. You mentioned her going to the WNBA, so what do you see in her growth?
Gary Blair: I think what they’re missing in the WNBA is someone who can put the ball in the basket. And her strength is her jumpshot because when you can create off the dribble and not have to screens all the time that’s what she does well. She creates her shot and she’s a very unselfish player – that’s why she’s got 116, 120 assists right now. How many three players will do that or give up the ball as much as she does? Play on another team, she’d be averaging 22, 23 points a game but she averages 15 and change for us.
She’s just very intense, she studies the game. Believe it or not, she’s one of the quietest kids we have off the court. On the court, she’s not too quiet. When I take her out she’s like a cocker spaniel, looking at me down there with those eyes wanting to go right back in. And sometimes I have to tell her, “Hey, who’s in there is workin’ pretty good.” Sometimes you gotta get her attention when she’s not doing what she wants.
Last year she had to play the Scottie Pippen to Gant and Starks. This year, she’s the Jordan. And so she’s creating the offense, she’s having to be the top defensive wing player, she’s having to be the go-to player down the stretch, whether she creates offense by the pass or by the score. Sometimes she frustrates me because she doesn’t know how to make the easy shot – everything has to be an ESPN highlight shot. And I want her to be able to score easy: know when to use the glass, not just be a rim shooter all the time, and get to the free throw line where nobody can guard you there. She’s been a pleasure to coach.
QM: Do you see her as more of a Scottie Pippen type if she goes to the WNBA or that type of supporting player?
GB: I think players in the league that ended up being better pros than they were college players would be somebody like Deanna Nolan. Deanna Nolan just turned it on when she got to that next level. Katie Douglas same way. And hopefully she’ll get that opportunity. And you’ve got someone who’s 5’11 and a half, can do a lot of things, good defensive rebounder – I wish she’d become a better offensive rebounder. And I think she can score easy.
QM: Is the being vocal thing something you’ve talked to her about? Do you want her to be more vocal?
GB: You’d love her to be more vocal, but I’ve got the two Sydneys out there on the court [Carter and Colson]. Now, Tyra White doesn’t say three words so she’s more verbal than Tyra. But a lot of kids when they leave the court, they’re finished with the game until practice the next day. She’s one of the few that will go back and watch the men play on TV, trying to pick up new moves or new ideas, and will talk about it the next day or something: ‘Did you see this? Did you see that?’ Other girls – it’s hard to be a great girls basketball player because who do you have to talk to? Guys, they can come talk to you and I and they don’t even play. Girls – those bowheads don’t want to talk about sports unless they’re watching the men’s game. So it’s hard to be that girl athlete. But she’s got a great future.
At the same time, she’s such a homebody to her mom back in Kansas City – she’s the baby girl out of five brothers – and she wants to make sure her mom is taken care of. So I think when time comes – [Smith and freshman wing Cierra Windham walk by] I’m hoping that California kid over there will turn into what Tyra or Tanisha is, but that kid’s gotta learn how to handle the ball to be able to play the three – it’s just like she refuses to lose.
I gotta get the angryness out of her sometimes, ok. And she says, ‘Coach, I’m fine.’ She just never smiles out there on the court. She does off the court, on the court it’s just -- [makes a frowning face and does something of military march in place] – it’s like that. And I said sometimes you gotta settle yourself out there and just have a good time.
We were playing somebody, I forget who it was. She came in and the shot clock was running down and the post player threw her the ball and she came off and shot about a 24-foot, dead, in-your-face ball at the high post – oh, we were playing Texas and just couldn’t miss at Austin, first conference game. We beat ‘em 10 out of 11 times now, 8 in a row. And she just looked over at me, knowing that wasn’t really the shot we wanted, and she just sorta [he makes a saluting motion] went like that, saluted. And I saluted her back. And I’ve never done that in my life! It was just spontaneous. [We share a laugh, he reaches for another Cheeto] It was just everything was rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ that day and sometimes you just gotta let kids be kids. If it means I gotta do a chest bump with Sydney Colson sometimes, I gotta learn how to chest bump! It’s today’s kids.
QM: You mentioned not being able to talk to many people, but she has [former Texas A&M and WNBA point guard and current TAMU assistant coach] A’Quonesia Franklin. Do you think that helps or do you think they’re such different players that it doesn’t matter?
GB: Oh, A’Quonesia is so smart. She’s a coach in waiting. She knows the game. She knows also when you go to the pros, you’re gonna be 9, 10, or 11th player, unless you’re the Candace Parker or the world or something like that. So you’re gonna play 9, 10, or 11th. Picture you in college gettin’ along with a 12-year-old. That’s the difference in ages. A 12-year-old, no matter how talented, is now gonna get along with an 18-year-old. What are y’all gonna talk about? Well, those 30-year-olds might be talking about their stock portfolio or something like that or what they’re doing or their cosmetic deals. And all of that is in front of Tanisha, but when you go to the pros, you better learn how to be a good teammate. ‘Cause I remember Van Chancellor told me one thing – I said, “Who are you gon’ keep in the last two spots?” “Whoever Cynthia Cooper likes.” [We both laugh]
QM: Which is legitimate.
GB: That’s right. Whoever she likes.
QM: Are you going to the bus?
GB: Let’s walk. [We start walking to the bus, following the team.] You gotta get along with the stars. That’s the way it is.
QM: If she got drafted say by Tulsa, would that be special to have her on the Tulsa team?
GB: Yeah. Yeah -- closer to home, closer to her mom, closer for us to watch. I know Nolan Richardson has been to about 3 or 4 of our games and hopefully – it depends on where they draft. Now, has her stock improved? If she keeps on puttin’ on performances like that yesterday and we can go pretty far in the tournament, her stock goes up. A pretty good example of that was [Briann] January last year. Her stock went sky high after they beat us in the Sweet 16. And then she got drafted #7. She was not gonna be the 7th pick until she had that great NCAA run. And we helped her make a lot of money [we both laugh] by losin’ to her.
QM: Do you see her fitting into Nolan Richardson’s system? He’s talking about the 40 minutes of hell thing. Do you see Tanisha Smith fitting there?
GB: [Sigh, then pause]
I think he better have a conversation with Rick Pitino because 40 minutes of hell didn’t work with the Boston Celtics. Here’s the difference in the pros: the men are playing a seven month season, the girls are going to Europe to make their real money. And they are not into pressin’ full court for the whole ballgame. You’re playing 34 games, plus playoffs, in a three month period whereas college we’re playing in a five month period. And the wear and tear on your body, I think kids would break down if you did it for the long haul. I’m sure it will be tweaked – like I used to press all the time too, but I don’t press full blast all the time. I think you just gotta tweak it and I’m sure Nolan’s smart enough to figure out what’s gonna work for him and he doesn’t need my advice but he might wanna listen to Pitino. [He winks, walking towards door from the arena to the idling bus]
QM: Alright thanks a lot.
GB: You bet.