By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
NaLyssa Smith, widely considered the No. 1 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, has done everything imaginable at Baylor, from winning championships to breaking records. While the 6-foot-4-inch forward from Converse is excited for the future, Smith’s focus is on having fun and enjoying the moment as well as what she’s been able to do as a Bear.
“It was definitely a crazy, crazy four years here at Baylor. I loved it, though,” Smith said. “It was a lot of trials and tribulations, a lot of adversity and changing. A lot of fun times too — I mean winning a national championship my freshman year, a lot of people can’t say that. Winning four Big 12 championships, a lot of people can’t say that, too. I’ve loved it here at Baylor. Even though the coaches have changed, the staff has changed, players have changed, we still rose through adversity and we’re here today to keep playing.”
However, of all the banners Smith has helped hang up in the Ferrell Center, there’s a couple that stand out to her more than the rest.
“This last one, it means the most to me,” Smith said. “I probably say the national championship and this conference championship have been my proudest moments at Baylor. Just because we started 0-2 like, you don’t hear that a lot at Baylor University. Then so many people were just like, ‘Oh, they are not like the other people. They’re not as good anymore.’ And I just felt like we kind of took that chip on our shoulder and we were like, ‘All right we are going to make it happen. We have to turn the whole season around.’ So going from 0-2 and winning a conference championship, it’s just something that sticks with me.”
Before her domination in college, Smith made a name for herself in the San Antonio area as well as nationally. Smith was selected to the 12-member 2018 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team and helped the USA win a gold medal over Canada. In high school, Smith earned multiple awards and honors playing at East Central High School, where she averaged 23.4 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game as a senior. However, Smith said where she really honed her skills was playing with SA Finest, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball organization known for its collection of the best women in high school basketball in San Antonio.
“It helped a lot actually,” Smith said. “Being on such a superior program where you’re playing around great players, it helps you go into college with confidence and just knowing the game of basketball. It also helps you off the court because they teach you kind of how to be a woman, how to grow up, your image and everything like that. So I feel like playing for SA Finest helped me be the person I am today.”
Despite being a five-star recruit out of high school, Smith still felt there was a lot she could learn when arriving on campus.
“A lot of people come into college just thinking, ‘I’m ready to play, I need to be in the game, put me in now,’” Smith said. “I feel like when I got here, it was more like I need to learn from Lauren Cox. I need to watch Kalani Brown, see if she’s posting up, see where she’s getting the ball.”
The All-American’s constant desire to learn has helped her grow in a variety of ways, and her teammates have taken notice.
“Freshman year we were kind of in a shell almost, especially I would say her; she was growing into herself,” senior center Queen Egbo said. “We saw glimpses of greatness — obviously — within her. She has always been that go-to player, but I feel like between freshman year and senior year, NaLyssa has grown as a leader. She has grown in different aspects of her game. She’s really taken on the challenge of being that leader and being somebody we can depend on. Every year she came in and got a little better. She just got better throughout the whole year, so it wasn’t a surprise to me because knowing who she is, she’s not a complacent person. She always wants to be better in some way. You’ve definitely seen that in her offensive game. She’s added a lot of different things to her arsenal and I feel like now she’s really ready for that next level.”
Another person who has been with Smith since the beginning of her collegiate career and has seen the constant growth is senior forward Caitlin Bickle, who has been one of Smith’s biggest supporters.
“She’s incredible, and people don’t get it,” Bickle said. “You see great players in the league and things like that, but I have never seen someone so versatile. I look at every single game and I’m like, ‘Did you really have that much? Is this just normal now? Is this just a regular thing?’ Just being there from freshman year to now and actually getting to see that development and see her thrive and just grow, I just know that’s going to continue in the league.”
Smith’s development has led to her achieving some amazing feats and putting her name in the record books, becoming just the eighth player in program history to reach the 2,000-career-point milestone and one of seven Bears to have 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. She also holds the record for most double-doubles in a season with 24 and a chance to increase it in the NCAA Tournament. But Smith doesn’t want to be remembered for just her stats.
“Someone that just gave their all, all the time,” Smith said. “My main focus this year was consistency, and I just feel like I’m doing good in that aspect. I just want to continue that, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s points, whether it’s leadership; I just always want to lead my team in a positive way. That’s how I want to be remembered.”
Head coach Nicki Collen said she’s grateful that she gets to coach the “ultimate chess piece,” given that Smith could have left Waco when Kim Mulkey moved on to Louisiana State University.
“I feel lucky, I feel blessed,” Collen said. “I think she believed in me and how I could help her personally as a basketball player, and how I could help prepare her for what’s next for her. NaLyssa Smith could have gone anywhere in the country, and she chose to stay.”
While Smith has acknowledged how much Collen has helped take her game to the next level and helped prepare her to go professional, she still has some unfinished business to take care of.
“I want to make a run for the national championship, of course,” Smith said. “It’s my last year so I feel like I’m going to leave it all on the court, go hard every game and just enjoy my moments that are left here at Baylor.”