Imagine being drafted No. 2 by a team that really needs you, and showing up strong for that team your entire rookie season.
You average 13.5 points per game as the second-leading scorer, pull down a team-high 7.9 rebounds, and shoot 41.9 percent from the field while playing more than 30 minutes per outing.
Then imagine your team drafts the best college center in the nation with their No. 1 pick the following spring, and your new coach needs you to switch up and play the power forward position. You adapt and change. And 10 games into the season, you’re averaging 14.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, and shooting 44.1 percent, while your free throw percentage is up 15 percent.
If you’re Fever forward NaLyssa Smith, you don’t have to imagine – this is reality. She hasn’t missed a beat in moving into her new role, and her consistency is one of the factors that is propelling Indiana’s long-awaited rise back to relevance.
With top pick Aliyah Boston in the low post, Smith is playing more on the perimeter to give her new teammate room to work. It is a new dynamic for both players.
“I think we’ll have a lot of high-low situations where she can bang inside, and if she doesn’t have it, she could kick it out,” Smith said. “I can shoot the shot, or I can throw it inside. Us just being those types of players is going to help each other out.”
Toward that end, Smith is a work in progress from behind the arc, as her percentage from there is her only stat that is down this year. Even so, she has had her moments.
In the Fever’s win against the Atlanta Dream last month, Smith scored 23 points on 10-16 shooting from the field, shot 3-5 from three and grabbed 13 rebounds. She said working on her shot is one of her top priorities.
“I feel like that’s been one of my main focuses is just expand my game, because it’s just going to make it harder for people to try and guard me,” Smith said. “(I am) constantly just being in the gym with these coaches and being around shooters. I’ve been doing shooting competitions with guards every day and competing with them because, at the end of the day, those are the ones that will make me better.”
Though she isn’t playing center anymore, Smith still has a nice touch under the basket, making 60 percent of her shots near the rim. She said versatility is her calling card.
“I always want to play on the perimeter,” Smith said. “I know my bread and butter is inside too. Just having someone that can high-low, go up and down. I think it’s going to help. We’re going to help each other.”
The former Baylor standout has taken players off the dribble, which creates mismatches with power forwards trying to guard her on the perimeter. She can also pick, pop, and pass her teammates the ball.
Smith’s willingness to embrace change, and her hunger to improve, has paid dividends for both herself and Indiana.
“A lot of times last year, I would have a bad shooting night and go into a slump,” Smith said. “This year, I’m figuring out that I could do more than just score the ball, and that’s what it shows in rebounding.”
Instead of going overseas to play last winter, Smith opted to stay home and play in the Athletes United league for their sophomore season. She averaged 24.2 points per game on 50 percent shooting, and won the league’s MVP award.
New coach Christie Sides had some marching orders for Smith when she got to training camp, which she said she has followed.
“The word for her is aggressive,” Sides said. “I gave it to her on day one. She’s working really hard to get in tip-top shape. Her conditioning is just getting there, and I’m really proud of her….she’s a big body….but she can make some moves to the basket and finish most of them.”
With Boston averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, the Fever are working hardest to improve their shooting. From the three-point line, they shoot a league-worst 27 percent. Slowly but surely, however, they are coming together.
In getting to 4-6, they snapped a league-worst losing streak record that dated back to last season, and are now on a two-game winning streak, having won three of their last four matchups. After living in the cellar of the league for the last six years, Indiana is now ninth in the standings.
They have just one double-digit loss so far this year, to the New York Liberty. Every other game has been close, with several losses due to their failure to close out – even with late-game leads. Perhaps most significantly, the Fever played the defending champion Las Vegas Aces tough two weeks ago, but fell short, 84-80.
After their win over the Chicago Sky Friday, leading scorer Kelsey Mitchell said the entire team is optimistic.
“To see a little light at the end of the tunnel….it feels good,” she said.
Indiana hosts Atlanta today at 4 p.m. ET.
Sue Favor contributed to this report