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Kianna Smith finally got her WNBA debut for the home team

Los Angeles got to experience the strange odyssey of WNBA replacement players Monday.

Phoenix Mercury v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Kianna Smith was about to eat dinner with her family on Sunday night when she got a call from the Los Angeles Sparks that it was time to suit up.

The recent Louisville graduate had spent training camp with her hometown Sparks after being selected with the 16th pick in this year’s WNBA Draft. The Fullerton was one of the team’s final cuts in the preseason, lasting until May 4; L.A. announced its 2022 roster on May 5 before opening the season the following day.

But life in the WNBA means that getting cut isn’t always goodbye — sometimes, it’s see you later.

Due to small rosters and no developmental league, WNBA teams are often on the lookout for replacement players. Often times there is a short turnaround, like when Kiana Williams — a 2021 Storm draft pick — had to make the trip from San Antonio to Seattle with less than 12 hours’ notice before playing in a game. Or when the Mercury signed Karlie Samuelson to a hardship contract on the day they played the Sparks in Los Angeles.

In terms of seven-day/hardship deals, familiarity helps. So does location, and Smith had both in her favor when the Sparks called on July 3, needing a guard for their July 4 game against Phoenix. It also worked out that L.A. had a jersey with Smith’s name on it ready to go.

Los Angeles Sparks Media Day
Kianna Smith got to suit up in the same media day jersey on Monday next to her backcourt mate Jordin Canada.
Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

“I got the call yesterday evening,” Smith said after Monday’s win over the Mercury, “and they’re like, you’re playing tomorrow. So I mean obviously, I was super excited and just ended up watching some film on them and also on Phoenix just to see what we have been running since I’ve left training camp and stuff like that.... I’m so thankful that if I had to sign a seven-day it was back with the Sparks, because knowing everyone, it definitely eases your mind a little bit.”

The need for Smith came quickly. The Sparks started their Sunday game against New York without Brittney Sykes and Rae Burrell but still with four healthy guards. They ended it without those two, plus Kristi Toliver and Chennedy Carter. Lexie Brown and Jordin Canada each played the entire second half, and that wouldn’t be feasible for a second consecutive game, especially on a back-to-back, even with Brown’s postgame recovery of Normatec boots, wine (for the antioxidants!), and Stranger Things.

That meant Smith — in addition to being one more player who could dribble the ball up the court — would have to provide some fresh legs and energy. That she did, especially on the offensive glass. When Smith’s name was brought up postgame, Liz Cambage interrupted before the question was even finished to say, “gets like 20 offensive rebounds on one play.” For reference:

Smith wasn’t asked to do much other than spell Canada and Brown, but she provided value anyway. Whether it was the three offensive rebounds that led to five points or her two assists that also led to five points, Smith made the right plays and didn’t commit any turnovers in the process. She noted that the playbook has changed since training camp in May, but it’s just basketball.

What was impressive about the rookie’s performance wasn’t necessarily her stat line, but her game readiness. Un-rostered players have to be in shape for when the opportunity presents itself, without being able to play in games, and Smith met the moment. She told Swish Appeal that she works out with her trainer almost every day and has also been playing 3x3, which she described as “super tiring” to keep her in shape. Smith was the Finals MVP for her team Texafornia in the Red Bull USA Basketball 3x3 Nationals.

“It’s the last thing we always say to someone when they get cut is you got to stay ready,” Cambage said. “Today is proof. She came in ready she came in fit, she played great D, pulling those o-boards when it was necessary. So it’s just hard work showing right there.”

Smith played in the preseason for the Sparks against this same Mercury team. She was comfortable with her teammates and comfortable with this opponent. When she was told that she would see the floor, she wasn’t overwhelmed by playing her first WNBA minutes. Instead, she felt confident that she was capable of meeting the moment.

“It wasn’t like anything different really,” Smith said of entering the game for the first time. “I’ve been feeling, like since I’ve been cut, that I can play at this level. And this time around, it wasn’t so much like, oh my gosh, I’m playing in the Staples Center. It was more like, I’m supposed to be here, and I know that.”

Smith has one more game under her current deal and will probably be relied upon once more to play. From then, overseas beckons in the fall, but it’s unclear what the future holds. Some replacement players head back home, and some, like Crystal Dangerfield, become indispensable.

Maybe it’s unreasonable to speculate that kind of impact for Smith, but four players selected after her in the 2022 draft are currently on WNBA rosters. The Sparks have shown interest in Sparks before, and they specifically wanted her back. Karlie Samuelson — a former replacement player for this very team — has been sitting in the stands of Arena for weeks, and L.A. called Smith instead.

“We've always said we’d keep an eye on her,” coach Fred Williams said postgame, “and she's been a player who’s always kept herself in shape. To see her out there today, I was pleased with what she did. The only thing I just told her is just be yourself, understand movement defensively, just give the energy. If you get a couple rebounds, or make a hustle play, that’s big, that’s huge.

“I felt that she did what she needed to do today to get her feet wet, and we got to use her again here hopefully real soon.”

For a couple more days at least, dinner with the Smith family will have to be rescheduled.