Although the Indiana Fever have lost 11 games in a row, a streak that has all but eliminated them from playoff contention, No. 2 overall pick NaLyssa Smith has been living the dream, facing fellow power forwards, former MVPs and current MVP candidates Breanna Stewart, Nneka Ogwumike and A’ja Wilson consecutively in her last three games.
“It’s been an experience,” Smith said after the Fever fell to Wilson’s Las Vegas Aces Thursday night. “Playing against all the great players, you kind of get to like see what they do best. And these are all players that I’ve looked up to throughout my whole career of basketball. So just seeing them play and just going up against great players and seeing how you match up against them, it’s a good feeling just being able to hang with them.”
Smith had 15 points and nine rebounds against Stewart and the Seattle Storm this past Sunday, 14 points and four assists against N. Ogwumike and the Los Angles Sparks on Tuesday and 24 points on Thursday night. She went 8-of-15 from deep over the three-game road trip, including 5-of-7 on Thursday.
Smith was somewhat in the conversation for an All-Star selection around midseason and was the runner-up in the All-Star Weekend skills challenge, which was a nice honor to add to her rookie season. She has continued her great play in the five games since the All-Star break.
Fever head coach Carlos Knox believes Smith’s most recent improvement has come mostly in the mental aspect of the game.
“Just her mentality, her approach to the game,” he said. “Her understanding of when and where to take shots. Her footwork, just getting prepared to shoot and score the basketball, I feel like she’s better. She can get a lot better defensively. But it’s just learning the angles and learning the positioning that it takes to be a great defender and I think that’s coming as well.”
In addition to the mental side of the game, Smith’s 3-point shot has continued to develop in her first year as a pro. She had a pervious three-game stretch this season where she made eight threes (May 15, May 27 and May 31) and seems to have caught fire again with 13 triples over her last seven contests. She has made 28 threes in 21 games so far this season at a very good 38.4-percent clip; her career high in makes at Baylor was nine, which came in 35 games last year.
“I think it really helps her,” Knox said when asked how the three ball opens up the rest of Smith’s game. “She’s been in the gym, she’s definitely been working on that. And she’s just thinking at that position, that trail 4 position, about facing up and being ready to make plays. It’s not necessarily a back-to-the-basket situation. So now she’s just kind of opening it up a little bit, this second part of the season. She’s understanding the pace of the WNBA. So I think she’s able to step into her shot a little bit better.”
“I had a great warm-up (Thursday night) and it was hitting in warm-ups, so I kinda knew coming into this game that was gonna be a part of my shot selection,” Smith said.
Smith has been a solid second-best player, albeit on a team that hasn't found much success. She’s second on Indiana in scoring with 13.5 points per game and first in rebounds with 8.2. She’s been a welcome addition in the eyes of the Fever’s best player, Kelsey Mitchell, who hopes the two can build some sort of success in the future, maybe with the help of another lottery pick in the 2023 draft or another veteran star.
“I think she’s a jack of all trades as far as like being able to get on the perimeter and make plays,” Mitchell said of Smith Thursday night. “In this game and in this league, 4s and 5s are like game-changing because you got people like A’ja Wilson who can shoot it and put it on the floor. And so to see Lyss kind of like come into her own ... it just kind of like adds to her game. I’m not surprised though. I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen what she can do, and I can’t be nothing but happy for her.”
One area of Smith’s game that has not been a positive this season is her free throw shooting. She shot 79.4 percent from the stripe on 349 attempts over her final two years at Baylor, but is shooting 54.9 percent this year. She was 1-of-7 on Thursday.
When asked if she knows what the issue is, Smith said, “Nah, I feel like if I knew, I would have changed it a long time ago.
“I feel like it’s something I just gotta, whenever we have an off day, just constantly shoot, shoot, shoot. Cuz I mean it’s the easiest shot in the game, I shouldn’t be missing it. But it’s all mental, so I’ma get it right.”
Smith is living the dream in one sense. She made it to the WNBA, is living up to expectations as one of the best rookies in the league and is playing against her idols. But for any professional athlete, the dream is also to win at the highest level.
“It would be hard for anybody,” Smith said when asked about coming into the league and facing so much losing right away. “You go into every game wanting to win, that’s kinda the standard. So just losing, nobody likes losing, it don’t feel right. But we know what we got to do to change it around.”
Time has just about run out on the Fever to turn it around this season. But Smith is going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. The Fever can only hope that she keeps her talents in Indiana and that they can help her out this offseason.