WNBA Draft Capsule: Tanisha Smith, small forward, Texas A&M

Chasing the Title rank: 7th among small forwards, 25th overall

Statistical strengths and weaknesses:

  • Smith's biggest statistical asset relative to other prospects is her passing ability with an assist rate of 16.6%. She is also among the most versatile players in the draft based on SPI styles, sitting at just above average in terms of scoring ratio and just below average in both perimeter, and interior ratios. 
  • For those who doubt Smith's pro potential, there is plenty of statistical evidence to support that belief. The number one concern is that she had a 27% usage rate but was not quite as efficient as some of other small forward prospects with an effective field goal percentage of only 46% and an around average 2 point percentage of 45.6%. While the turnovers she makes are not always bad ones because they often reflect very good passing instincts, she does turn the ball over at a rate of 14.02%. Her free throw rate of 24.82% is also not particularly inspiring and her free throws made per field goals attempted of 17.93% is not particularly good either. None of that is to mention her surprisingly low offensive rebounding percentage of 3.5%, which might not be what one expects from a player with her type of athleticism.

Smith on what she has to work on to be an effective WNBA player :

"Right now, coaches keep telling me, 'Rebound, rebound, rebound.' I think I've been doing a good job with that. But I learned a lot from coach J on the defensive end so I think I've gotten better at that over the years. You didn't have to play defense in junior college. But right now, no, I'm just continuing to do what I do out on the court and hopefully that brings more WNBA attention."

-- Smith in a locker room interview with Swish Appeal before practicing for their second-round match with Gonzaga.

Quotes from a coach:

Gary Blair on Tanisha Smith’s WNBA potential and why Nolan Richardson should talk to Rick Pitino
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.

Description:

After Tanisha Smith's triple-double performance against Portland State University in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Gary Blair said he wasn't surprised.

"We run our offense through her a lot even though she's playing the three position," said Blair. "Whether we're running our triple post offense or whether we're running certain set plays, she's such a good passer - she knows how to throw the ball away from the defense, not just throw the ball."

After a lesser performance in a heartbreaking loss to Gonzaga in the second round, Blair was similarly glowing in his praise of his senior leader. 

"During the timeouts, I was telling her to take over the ballgame because we were a little tentative at our one and two positions," said Blair. "I was just saying, 'Hey you gotta come get the ball, make something happen off the bounce.' Like she did like that drive that she made and missed the free throw. I said, 'You just gotta make something happen. You're our go-to player and we can't run a perfect offense.' She's given me everything that a person could possibly want as a player."

The point is that Smith's numbers are reflective of a player for whom much was expected, whether she was having a good night or a bad night. We can certainly dismiss Blair's effusive comments about Smith as hyperbole, but the theme that emerged from Blair's comments during the Seattle sub-regional is that Smith is perhaps a more special basketball player than she gets credit for from observers.

Even watching Smith on the court in practice, she seems to have an extra bounce to her step, a burst of speed just beyond that of everyone else, and an intensity that just exudes confidence. Yet despite the confident swagger Smith brings to the court she, coach, Blair, and her teammates all say she is one of the quietest players on the team despite the fact that she's recognized as a leader.

"I talk to the girls when I have to, but most of my leadership comes from my actions," said Smith the day before their 72-71 loss to Gonzaga.

With the combination of a quiet demeanor and superior athleticism, it starts to make sense why both Blair and Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler have separately compared Smith to Deanna Nolan. It would follow from her reserved personality, that the most potent ways that she affects the game might in fact be the most subtle ways, things that do not show up in her statistics but are felt by opponents.

"A lengthy athletic guard," said Portland State University point guard Claire Faucher of Smith after TAMU's first round win. "I think the length and then not being able to make the easy passes that I normally do -- just hitting the lanes and getting other people involved. I think I had to dribble and try to do a little bit more than I would have liked to."

Even subtler, is the way Smith defends off the ball, normally against the other team's top offensive threat not running the point. Not only is she able to jump passing lanes to get steals, but she gets her hands on a number of deflections. Less noticeable is that even if she's not getting her hands on the pass, she is sometimes able to jump the passing lanes so quickly that she forces the ballhandler to think twice about the pass before it even leaves their hands. She pops out of a defensive stance into the passing lanes quicker than almost anyone you'll see in basketball.

Her defensive abilities both on and off the ball are not important simply as a skill that she brings to the WNBA. What it demonstrates is that Smith is a person who understands the game, has outstanding instincts, and as the athleticism to turn instincts into action. The level at which she executes that at the defensive end is nothing short of remarkable - a player simply cannot play defense as effectively as she does without having a superior court awareness. She does exhibit the same awareness offensively but the problem is bringing it all together in the most effective ways possible.

Where the instincts are most evident is exactly the situation you might expect from an unselfish player - when she's setting up teammates to score. She was able to get to almost anywhere she wanted to set up a pass or shot in college, but would sometimes seem to either hesitate or go for a big play instead of a simple play. But she has exceptional court vision for her position and often times created exactly the passing play you might expect from a point guard, but simply tried to thread the needle a bit too much. The frequency at which a point guard attempts these risky plays might mask their mistakes a bit more. For Smith, they stand out more because they aren't off set by the big assist numbers.

Her rather pedestrian free throw rate is also reason for concern for similar reasons - with her quickness, athleticism, and ball handling ability, getting to the free throw line should have been an easy way to collect points. Instead she tended to do just enough to get space and settle for mid-range jumpers, which she is in fact quite adept at although it simply isn't the most efficient decision in most cases. As perhaps another example of misplaced focus offensively, both she and coach Blair cited offensive rebounding as an area of concern and certainly with her athleticism and instincts, you'd like to see more of that against college competition.

Yet ultimately, Smith has the things that are very difficult to teach - athleticism, instincts, and a hunger to learn more about the game. On a team focused on defense and scoring in transition, there's no reason Smith couldn't grow into a productive wing player with work on her offensive decision-making and moving back to the complementary player role instead of being looked to as the leader. The question in the current WNBA climate is whether anyone will take that gamble on a player who might need some seasoning and is something of a wildcard compared to more solid commodities on the perimeter. The bottom-line is that watching Smith closely it's clear why people are comparing her to Nolan - she could similarly breakout after reaching the WNBA.

Relevant Links:

Gary Blair on Tanisha Smith’s WNBA potential and why Nolan Richardson should talk to Rick Pitino

Why Gonzaga vs. Texas A&M is Must-See TV: The Intangible Leadership of Smith & Vandersloot

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