It was a year she’ll never forget. Looking over the long list of awards and accomplishments she racked up over the course of 2018, NaLyssa Smith — rocking a hoodie and sweatpants on a cold January afternoon sitting at a round table inside the media room at the Ferrell Center — couldn’t help but smile as she shook her head.
Smith was named a McDonald’s All-American, Naismith National High School All-American First Team member, Jordan Brand Classic All-American, SLAM Magazine All-American, a Morgan Wootten Girls High School Player of the Year Award nominee and a semifinalist for the Naismith Trophy Girls High School Player of the Year.
“Man, 2018 was fun. It was crazy,” Smith said as she scanned the list that highlighted all the success she had earned in such a short period of time. “I didn’t think I knew I was going to come into college doing great things, but I didn’t know it was going to be like this. It’s been real fun.”
For the five-star recruit out of Converse, Texas, success paved the way for her to showcase her skills on a national stage. After she finished her senior season averaging 23.4 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks, Smith suited up for the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic game.
“Those were fun. McDonald’s was fun. You got a whole bunch of gear,” Smith said. “You got to meet the greatest players in the country. Jordan Brand was fun, too. The playing part was super-fun just in front of a big crowd and playing with a lot of people showcasing your talent.
“I met Nate Robinson and Jabari Parker. Those were my favorite ones. Jabari Parker went to Duke, and I used to love the Duke men’s team. And then Nate Robinson, man. I took a picture, but I kept my composure.”
Around the time her high school year was wrapping up, Smith jetted off to Colorado, where she turned her attention to tryouts for the 12-member 2018 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team in late May.
It was a tryout Smith had been working toward for two years, one that pushed her to be the player that Lady Bear basketball fans have quickly grown to appreciate.
‘They’re giving me a chance’
Smith took part in the tryouts for USA Basketball’s Under-17 National Team in 2016, but didn’t make the cut. Instead of hanging her head in disappointment, she used that experience to change her game for the better.
“It improved a lot. I was in the gym a lot,” Smith said. “When I didn’t make it, it made me go harder. I wanted them to believe in me the next time. I worked on the little things like using my left hand more or a stronger post move with shooting and dribbling.
“I remember somebody told me, they were like, ‘The reason you didn’t make it was probably because you didn’t showcase different types of things.’ I would post up a lot. I would do the same thing. When I went the next time I made sure I shot it a lot or drove a lot. I wanted to show them all the different things I could do. I guess that helped me make the team.”
On her second time around, when the list was posted of the players who made the cut, Smith found her number.
“Finally,” she thought, “they’re giving me a chance.”
Smith believed she was primed to display her talents on a global stage. For someone who had never traveled out of the country before the summer of 2018, she couldn’t wait to head to Mexico with her US team to play in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in early August.
“It was different,” Smith said. “You see the way people live and how packed everything is. It was, like, one car after the other on a street. It was so crowded in Mexico. It was cool. You see different types of things in the world. It makes you appreciate all types of things.”
One of those things she missed was the food back home. Smith can’t talk about it without laughing.
“I didn’t eat anything in Mexico,” she said. “I lost seven pounds while I was there. I didn’t like any of the food. I ate cereal every day. That was bad. I thought it was going to be good Mexican food. It was Mexican food, but not like we usually have.”
Despite the steady diet of cereal, Smith ended up leading her team in scoring with 11 points per game. In the gold medal game against Canada — that the Americans won, 84-60 — Smith finished with 18 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes of play.
“We beat them by 30, but it was still fun to know you’re competing for a gold medal,” Smith said. “We were excited the whole game. We wanted to make sure we were doing everything. Once we won that, that was probably the most exciting times of my life.”
Globetrotting just beginning
With a gold medal around her neck, Smith wasn’t headed back to the States yet. Instead, she boarded a flight to Italy where she met up with her new Baylor teammates.
“We slept in the airport for, like, six hours waiting for our flight,” Smith said. “I was already tired from that. Then we went on the plane to Italy, and that was a 13-hour flight. I just slept that whole time. When I woke up, we were in Italy. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”
Smith caught up with the Lady Bears in time to play in their final contest in Italy against Muggia Select.
“It was fun. That’s when I really met everybody,” Smith said. “I had met them (before), but we never really hung out like that. Playing with them that one game was cool. I really liked all the traveling we did, too. When we went to Lake Como and just walked around and looked at the boats. That was really cool.”
Oh, and don’t worry. Smith is pretty sure she gained all the weight back in Italy that she lost in Mexico.
“Oh yeah, I ate pizza every single day,” Smith said. “It was so good.”
Getting defensive at Baylor
Just like with her voyage through Mexico’s cereal bowls, Smith is unable to hold in laughter when she thinks about the biggest adjustment she’s had to make to her game since arriving at Baylor.
“Man, it’s my defense,” Smith said. “I didn’t know I wasn’t that good at defense. When I got here, I figured out that I wasn’t good at defense.”
When asked how she made that determination, the laughter escalated as she took no time to answer.
“Coach Mulkey,” Smith said. “She told me I needed to improve on defense. That’s what I’m working on right now.”
So far this season, Smith is second on the team averaging 12.1 points per game while shooting 58.8 percent from the floor in 20.1 minutes per contest. The 6-foot-2 forward is also averaging seven rebounds per game.
While her play has been consistent thus far, Smith had her biggest game back in November when the Lady Bears traveled to Fort Defiance, Arizona, to take on Arizona State.
As Baylor fell into a deficit early on, it was Smith’s play that kept the Lady Bears in the game. She scored 10 of her team-high 16 points in the first half in addition to pulling down 11 rebounds.
“I felt good about myself,” Smith said. “As a freshman, a lot of people aren’t doing that. To come into a game and be doing things that other people aren’t, helping the team out mostly, getting us back into the game makes you feel good.”
Thursday’s game against Connecticut will mark a reunion of sorts for Smith. She played with UConn freshman Christyn Williams on Team USA in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
“She’s a great guard,” Smith said. “She knows how to score the ball. She’s real strong too. She gets lots of rebounds.”
Williams, the top-ranked recruit in the 2018 class according to ESPN Hoopgurlz, is the first freshman to start her first career game at UConn since Breanna Stewart. Williams is averaging 13.8 points and 2.1 assists per game.
“What those two freshmen have done is they’ve impacted their respective programs,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “You go to the Arizona State game, and we don’t win that game if NaLyssa doesn’t step up and hit some big shots for us. I can’t speak in detail about what Christyn means to Geno’s team. But on film, obviously, she’s playing a lot of minutes, she starts for them.
“So, those kids come into systems and play whatever role they have to, but you know they’re special players and they’re unselfish players or they wouldn’t go to those schools. Because they know those schools, the cupboard’s not bare, and they’re going to have to work their way to get minutes. And I just think both of them have been impact players for their respective teams.”