By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer
Baylor has a long, storied history of dominant post players. Baylor legends like Brittney Griner, Kalani Brown, Lauren Cox and Nina Davis have all made their mark on Baylor history in their time in Waco. NaLyssa Smith has been no different.
Smith, a 6-foot-2-inch junior from Cypress, took home the 2021 Big 12 Player of the Year award in a season in which she averaged 18.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. This season, Smith took a huge leap forward in every statistical category, especially time on the floor. In the entirety of the 2020 season, Smith played 675 minutes. At the end of the 2021 Big 12 tournament, Smith has played 1,256 minutes. That massive increase somewhat explains Smith’s bump in production, but it’s more a sign of head coach Kim Mulkey’s trust in her star and what she brings to the team.
“NaLyssa — [strong play] is kind of contagious from her,” Mulkey said. “She can do it so effortlessly, so the rest of them want to do what NaLyssa does. When NaLyssa’s feeling it, you just kind of smile and go ‘I’m glad she’s on my team.’”
Smith has been a contributor for Baylor her whole career, but during the time the team was under quarantine, she was able to grow her game beyond what opponents were prepared for.
“I feel like in quarantine and the time we had off, I worked a lot on perimeter shots and just ball handling and just little things like that to expand my game,” Smith said. “When you bring a lot more to the table, it’s going to be harder to guard.”
That perimeter jumper has certainly come along, as Smith is shooting the highest percentage of her career from the three. In an early March game against Texas, Smith went 2-2 from beyond the arc, a dangerous sign of things to come for teams looking to knock off Smith and the Lady Bears. Smith’s game has developed around the rim, too. In her first two years at Baylor, Smith pulled in 152 offensive rebounds. This year alone she’s grabbed 95 with an entire NCAA tournament still to be played.
That growth is just part of the reason Smith was tabbed as the Big 12’s best player. Smith is the 12th Baylor player to earn the award, and 2021 marks the fourth consecutive year that at least one outlet has named a Lady Bear the Player of the Year. Mulkey had high praise for the talented forward after the award was announced.
“She’s just a special talent,” Mulkey said. “She can do things in the air and finish, and most girls can’t. While we have had a long list of great post players, she’s not your back-to-the-basket type of post player. So we didn’t try to make her into that. We want her close to that paint and that rim because she’s a tremendous rebounder. We’re excited for her.”
Smith’s regular season was one for the history books, but now all eyes are on San Antonio for the NCAA tournament. Smith has one national title under her belt as a Lady Bear, but now it’s time to see if Baylor’s latest post star can lead a team to the promised land. Smith has hoisted two trophies this year. Baylor would love for her to make it three.