ISO Spotlight: We should talk more about NaLyssa Smith

Photo by John Hamilton

The Baylor Lady Bears are 2-0 on the season, winning their first two games in runaway fashion, 97-29 over New Hampshire and120-46 over Grambling State. They've done so by being just utterly dominant inside the arc and getting contributions from all across their roster.

When you think of this 2019-2020 Baylor squad, the first name that's going to pop into your head is Lauren Cox. That's fine, because Cox definitely is the leader of this team and the player with the brightest post-college future, as she's virutally a lock to go in the top two or three picks of the 2020 WNBA Draft. But if you kept listing names of key players on this team, how soon would you name sophomore forward NaLyssa Smith?

The answer is probably not soon enough.

But Smith – last year's Waco Tribune-Herald Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year – has stepped into a starting role this year for the Lady Bears and it's going very, very well.

Smith appeared in all 38 Baylor games last year as a freshman. She averaged 8.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, solid numbers, especially for a player who had to contend with Cox and Kalani Brown for minutes. She hit the national stage in Baylor's national championship game victory over Notre Dame. In the third quarter, Cox went down with a knee injury and was unable to return, which meant Smith was asked to take on an important role down the stretch in the most important game of the year for the Lady Bears. She responded well, finishing that game with 14 points and six boards as the Bears held off a late charge from the Fighting Irish.

Now, before we talk about what Smith has done this season, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: Baylor has not been challenged yet. Not even a little challenged.

It won't be until November 19th when they face South Florida that they'll play a game that could be close, as the Bulls just upset No. 15 Texas on Friday night. What this all means is that Baylor's not scoring 120 points with eight players in double figures every time they step on a basketball court. The numbers are going to come down. Smith's numbers will come down.

But even though that's true, it doesn't negate the following two truths: 1) NaLyssa Smith is very clearly a very good basketball player and 2) because she has a starting role, her numbers won't be as negatively impacted by the tougher schedule the Lady Bears will face when they get to conference play. And even then, isn't "tougher schedule" a bit of a misnomer when we're talking about a team as good as Baylor? In Big 12 play, they should be the overwhelming favorites in every game they play, especially after what we just saw from Texas.The toughest games Baylor will play are non-conference matches against Indiana, South Carolina, and UConn. Yes, Baylor at Connecticut. January 9th. Mark your calendars now.

Anyway, on to some analysis of Smith's game and what she's done this season.

NaLyssa Smith's succeeding in expanded role

Smith was named the Big 12 Co-Player of the Week for the first week of the season, sharing that title with Kansas freshman guard Holly Kersgieter. (Big week for underclassmen in the Big 12!) She did it on the strength of two strong performances:

- vs New Hampshire: 21 points (6-for-9 shooting), 14 rebounds

- vs Grambling State: 21 points (9-for-11 shooting), 13 rebounds

Smith's been able to score in a variety of ways this year, logging at least 10 percent of her possessions in each of the following playtypes: transition, put backs, post-up, pick-and-roll, and cut. She's done the majority of her damage in transition, logging nine transition possessions.

On the play above, we get a sense of what Smith can do on both ends of the floor. It all starts with her leaping into the passing lane and creating the turnover, and then it's off to the races for her as she glides down the court to get the layup on the other end. Baylor having a power forward who can move like this is unfair to rest of college basketball. If you look back at her high school scouting reports, everyone seemed to agree that Smith's athleticism was going to be huge for her at this level, with words like "explosive" and "elite" making a ton of appearances.

"Explosive" is definitely near the top of the list of words I think when I watch Smith play. As great as the Lauren Cox and Kalani Brown frontcourt was last year, there's still plenty of upside with Smith because of that explosiveness and because of how versatile she is. In the 2018-2019 season, Brown and Cox both had post ups as their most used playtypes, with Brown using the post up on over 40 percent of her offensive possessions. Having two dominant post players got Baylor to the pinnacle of the sport last year, so obviously being that post heavy worked out perfectly fine for the Lady Bears, but Smith brings a totally new dimension to the team.

Baylor currently ranks 40th in D1 in the percentage of time spent in transition. Last year, they were 113th. This is a team that's going to be getting out and running significantly more this year based on their current roster construction, something that makes this year's Baylor team tough to gauge since we've gotten so used to the post-heavy, half-court offense of years past. Yes, they still have Lauren Cox, but surrounding her with Smith and adding South Carolina transfer Te'a Cooper -- another player who excels in transition -- to the mix definitely shakes up the composition of this team.

The other thing that Smith's been doing this year is rebounding the basketball.

I really hate citing early season statistics because the sample size is so small, but Smith's 13.5 boards per game have her tied for 16th in D1 as of the time I'm writing this sentence. Kansas State's Peyton Williams is the only Big 12 player ahead of Smith. Smith's only third on the Lady Bears in offensive rebounding, but that mostly seems to be a matter of positioning, as Lauren Cox is in the right spot to grab the majority of Baylor's offensive boards. But when Smith has gotten offensive boards, she's been lethal in the putback game, scoring 1.857 points per possession on her seven possessions. Again, very small sample here, 

I don't really have any comments on this next play. I just think we need to appreciate this assist from Smith:

(Also, should probably appreciate that the score was 51-3 after the bucket here. Baylor can just run opponents off the floor. I'm not really sure how I'm expected to believe that they could lose a game this year. Please give us a Baylor/Oregon game in the NCAA Tournament. Please, please, please.)

In this week's edition of her class-by-class player rankings, Aneela Khan ranked Smith as college basketball's best Sophomore. And while the UConn duo of Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa do have some valid claims to that title, Smith's play so far this year has me convinced that Khan's ranking is right. NaLyssa Smith is the best Sophomore player in the country. She might be the next breakout star in college basketball. Keep your eyes on the Baylor forward.

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