Things are looking a little different for the Baylor Bears women’s basketball program these days.
Kim Mulkey, who coached Baylor to national championships in 2005, 2012 and 2019, is out, now leading the LSU Tigers. Nicki Collen, who had coached the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream for three seasons before heading to Baylor to succeed Mulkey, is in, and she’s brought a few changes in philosophy to the Bears, chief among them a five-out offense that features more ball movement and 3-point shots (28.5 percent 3-point rate this season; 14.1 percent 3-point rate last season).
For the Bears (10-4; 0-2 Big 12), those changes have yielded mixed results thus far. Baylor lost two marquee non-conference matchups against No. 3 Maryland and No. 13 Michigan and has yet to win a game in Big 12 play — an unusual sight for women’s college basketball fans.
There’s been one constant during Collen’s first season at the helm for Baylor, though, and it’s the play of forward NaLyssa Smith. The 6-foot-4 senior is picking up right where she left off in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, posting even more impressive numbers than she did under Mulkey and drawing recognition on both a conference and national scale.
It isn’t just the collegiate awards voters who have taken notice. Smith entered the 2021-22 NCAA season widely considered to be a potential lottery pick, and at this juncture, it seems almost certain that she’ll be drafted in the top-4 this spring. Mock drafts by ESPN, Lines.com and Winsidr all predict Smith being drafted second overall by the Indiana Fever, while Bleacher Report’s latest mock has her going first overall.
Such consensus is just about the highest praise a WNBA Draft prospect can receive, and while there’s still plenty of basketball remaining in the NCAA season, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Smith will be one of the first players to hear her name called in the 2022 Draft. Let’s take a look at her game and her statistics and talk about what makes her such a great player.
Honors and statistics
Smith’s career at Baylor began in 2018, when the No. 13 overall recruit came off the bench behind future WNBA players in Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox. After she was named a full-time starter the following season, Smith’s impact on the Bears became obvious; she was named to the 2020 All-Big 12 First Team while also earning All-America Honorable Mention honors by both the Associated Press and WBCA.
Smith continued building upon her success as a junior, averaging career-highs in points (18), rebounds (8.9) and steals (1.2). She accumulated an enormous amount of awards for her performance, including consensus Big 12 Player of the Year honors, All-America honors from the Associated Press, WBCA, USBWA and ESPN, the WBCA Wade Trophy National Player of the Year and the WBCA Katrina McClain Award Power Forward of the Year.
Unsurprisingly, Smith was named the Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year for the 2021-22 season. She was also named a Preseason All-American by the Associated Press, and is currently on watch lists for the Katrina McClain Award, Wooden Award, Wade Trophy and Naismith Award.
Internationally, Smith won a Gold Medal with Team USA in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
How she helps the Bears
As her stats suggest, Smith has climbed the ladder at Baylor, her role steadily increasing with each season. It’s culminated in what has been a massive senior season thus far; Smith is currently averaging 21.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game — by far the highest of her career in both categories — while also averaging better than one steal and block per game for the first time.
What makes this increase in volume more impressive is that the efficiency is still largely the same. In each of her four seasons as a Bear, Smith has shot at least 55.9 percent on 2-point shots, and she’s scored at least 1.22 points per attempt from her sophomore season onward, according to Her Hoop Stats.
Watch Smith play for just a few minutes and it becomes obvious what fuels these metrics. Her physical gifts are unlike those of most of her peers; she is a tremendous athlete who gets off the floor quickly and explodes to the rim for effortless-looking finishes. She has both the strength and body control to be a terror in the paint, and if defenses guard her too closely anywhere else on the court, she can blow right by them with a quick first step.
To put it concisely: Smith does things that most other players simply can’t do, from overpowering defenders in the post to outrunning them in transition and outworking them on the boards.
The rebounding is of particular note when looking at Smith’s game. Even as her role at Baylor has changed, she’s been a consistently strong rebounder, ranking no lower than in the 91st percentile in total rebounding percentage in any of her first three seasons as a Bear.
As a senior, though, Smith has been downright dominant on the glass. Only a handful of players in the entire country are currently posting higher defensive rebounding (27.9 percent) and total rebounding (20.9 percent) rates than Smith, who seems to be enjoying the additional floor space opened up by Collen’s new offense.
Obviously, Smith’s physical tools will be her calling card when evaluated by professional scouts, and it’s not unlikely that she’ll play her first minutes in the WNBA as a pick and roll/cut big who is relied upon for her energy. It’s Smith’s developing face-up game that holds the key to her professional potential; if she can demonstrate a consistent 3-point shot, it will make her off-dribble game that much more effective and turn her into a bonafide star as a play finisher.
Watch her play
The Bears have a trio of remaining Big 12 games that will be televised nationally on ESPN2: two against WNBA Draft prospect Ashley Joens and the Iowa State Cyclones (Jan. 23 and Feb. 28) and one against the rival Texas Longhorns (Feb. 6). All other games on Baylor’s regular-season schedule (which goes through March 6) can be streamed using the ESPN Plus streaming service.
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 NCAA season are current through Jan. 14, 2022.