By Tristan Tucker
When Alanna Smith signed with the Chicago Sky in February, she didn’t expect to be a frontrunner for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player by season’s end. The 6-foot-4 Australian forward/center signed to a team with a crowded frontcourt and she expected to come off the bench to begin the year.
Though she didn’t anticipate the season she was in store for, Smith always knew she was capable of high-level play. Fast forward to September, and Smith has the reins to a starting position for a Sky team attempting to make a playoff run.
“It’s so weird, because I wasn’t on a team last year,” Smith said. “I got cut like 10 games into the season. Things can change so quickly. That’s something that I’ve kind of come to terms with […] I’m happy that I’m starting but I know that at any point, that can change. So I’m just trying to enjoy it while I can and do the best that I can.”
Progress isn’t always linear, and Smith’s path to the Sky saw more than a few bumps in the road along the way. Smith has four years of W experience but never carved out a role with her prior teams. When she got cut last year by the Indiana Fever, Smith said she had opportunities to sign seven-day hardship contracts, but stepped away from the WNBA altogether.
“I think I could have stuck around, but for foreign players, it’s hard to do that, because you don’t have a home base,” she said. “[I would have been] living out of two suitcases […] for the rest of the season and bouncing around from team to team. It’s just for me personally, that wasn’t sustainable and I had already had a bit of an ego punch and a confidence hit, so I knew I needed a reset, so I went home and I played in the local league in Australia.”
The Stanford alum played in the NBL1 following her time with the Fever, averaging 22.8 points during her time there playing under coach Shannon Seebohm. Smith said she had a ton of trust in Seebohm, and together they led the North Townsville Flames to a championship.
“That helped me come back to myself and remind myself of the player that I am and who I could be,” Smith said.
Smith said playing in the NBL1 and then eventually in training camps for Australia ahead of the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup helped her get over being waived by the Fever. However, Smith took another blow before the World Cup.
“I went through the selection process feeling really good to then be cut again by my national team, which was a big blow for me,” Smith said. “I’ve been involved with the national team for the past five years, a long time, and went to the last Olympics, so that one was a shock for me. It felt like, how many more blows could I take that year?”
At that point, Smith moved to play in Poland. Once again, Smith took advantage of the chance and averaged 21.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.0 steals in 27 regular season games for AZS AJP Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland.
“To be honest, I wasn’t planning on playing in the WNBA this year,” Smith said.
That plan changed when Smith got a call from the Sky’s coaching staff. Smith said she laid out what she needed from a prospective WNBA job, and the Sky checked off every box. Chicago brass told Smith she’d be coming off the bench to provide energy, crash the glass and stretch the floor.
Even though Smith started the year coming off the bench, her role quickly evolved due to injuries to key players in Chicago’s frontcourt. Smith took over for Morgan Bertsch at the four spot when she went down early in the season, and Bertsch took back over briefly when Smith suffered a concussion.
The rotation shifted several times this year but Smith appreciated the support from her teammates, like Bertsch.
“[Bertsch and I] play against each other a lot in practice,” Smith said. “She freaking gets me every time on this one fake that I always go for. […] I think what’s really cool about playing with [Bertsch] as well is that we’re in competing spots. We’re playing the same position and want to do similar things, but we get along really well. […] We’re helping each other to be better and genuinely happy for each other’s successes.”
Smith is also taking the time to learn from her veteran teammates, like stellar shot-blocker Elizabeth Williams.
“She’s one of the most consistently calm players that I’ve ever played with,” Smith said. “She never gets too low, she never gets too high. […] That’s something that I really appreciate because I’m a high-emotion, high-passion player. And that’s something I’ve learnt from [Williams], is to ride it out a bit more rather than get swooped up in highs and lows.”
Now a starter, Smith exploded onto the scene, continually setting single-game career highs and holding onto her starting spot as the team got healthier around her. Smith averaged 9.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in the regular season, all of which are career highs. She has more points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals this year than in her first four years in the league combined, despite playing in nearly 30 fewer total games. She also leads the Sky in on-off rating, meaning the team plays the best when she’s on the court.
Before becoming a full-time starter, Smith wasn’t always getting defensive assignments on the league’s superstars. Now, Sky fans are getting a chance to see her guard the likes of Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson on a nightly basis.
“Opportunity is everything,” Smith said. “I pride myself on being aggressive and not backing down regardless of who it is that I’m guarding. When I’m on the floor, I might get a few fouls here and there, but I’m not going to stop being aggressive and going and betting on myself.”
Smith keeps her growth in perspective, and is appreciative of the arduous journey she’s taken to get here. She isn’t planning to stop improving anytime soon.
“I think one of the reasons I’ve gotten to the level that I’m at is because I am my own biggest critic and I push myself to be better even when I feel like I’m doing well,” Smith said.
The Sky clinched a playoff spot and Smith, gunning for the Most Improved Player award, is a huge part of that. Regardless of how the season ends, Smith is proud of her triumphant return to the WNBA.
“[Outside of a championship, success is] ending the season better than I started it,” Smith said. “You want to be playing your best basketball at the end, come playoff time. […] I want to know that I put in work and I’m getting results from putting in that work. I already feel like I’ve achieved something this year just based on the numbers and I feel confident in the fact that I did better than last season.”