NaLyssa Smith doesn’t hesitate to answer the question. Yes, the Baylor Bears All-American thinks she should be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 WNBA draft. And if it doesn’t happen? She will get busy proving right the team that took her.
Smith, a 6-foot-4 forward, is expected to go in the first two picks of Monday’s draft (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). That is where she has been projected all season, as she led the Bears to the program’s 12th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. She repeated as a WBCA All-American, the Katrina McClain Award winner as country’s best power forward and the Big 12 Player of the Year.
Even so, Smith motivates herself with the motto “Slept on.” It’s hard to make that fit with someone who has won so many awards, but Smith grins when you point that out.
“I’m 1 or 2,” she said of her perceived draft status. “So I feel like I’m still slept on if you don’t think I’m 1 off the bat.”
Smith says this with both conviction and good humor. She has dreamed of the WNBA for a long time, and wants to approach the pro level the same way she did the college game: with unshakeable confidence and nonstop energy. Smith, who averaged 22.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game this season, has the talent to be a building block for the WNBA team that takes her Monday. After playing her first three seasons at Baylor under coach Kim Mulkey, Smith spent this past season refining and expanding her game with coach Nicki Collen and thinks she is ready for the jump up to the WNBA.
“She’s a WNBA athlete,” said Collen, who took over the Bears this season after coaching six years in the WNBA. “Her game translates immediately. And she proved this season she will get down and guard people. She responds to a challenge. …
“You don’t see ups and downs in box scores from NaLyssa. It’s just steady. And I feel like she’s still got so much more room for growth. Her ceiling is high, and she asks good questions. She has developed a different focus regarding learning the details and commitment you need at the next level.”
Smith, who is from Converse, Texas, helped Baylor win an NCAA title in 2019. But it was then, in her first year with the Bears, that she started to feel overlooked. Smith was not on the Big 12’s all-freshman team, let alone the league’s freshman of the year in 2019.
While Smith averaged an impressive 8.4 PPG and 5.1 RPG playing behind older Baylor posts Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox, both of whom are currently on WNBA rosters, award voters were swayed by other players’ bigger numbers. But Smith was well on her way to Big 12 stardom.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled both the NCAA and Big 12 tournaments in 2020, but Baylor won the league tournament again in 2021 and nearly made another women’s Final Four. Baylor fell 69-67 to UConn in the Elite Eight last year, with Smith getting 14 points and 13 rebounds. And Smith was named the Wade Trophy winner as the national player of the year.
Then about a month later, Mulkey stunned the women’s basketball world, leaving Baylor for LSU. Smith stayed put in Waco, Texas, and embraced what Collen could teach her to prepare for her final college season and the WNBA.
The Bears had a bit of a rocky start to the Big 12 schedule but then won the regular-season title again. Smith and Baylor seemed at the peak of their powers in a 91-76 Big 12 tournament semifinal win over Oklahoma in which Smith had 37 points and 11 rebounds. But Baylor ran out of steam; the Bears lost to Texas in the league tournament final and then got upset on their home court when No. 10 seed South Dakota beat 2-seed Baylor in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Smith had hoped for one more Final Four appearance. But as much as the sadness that comes with the finality of one chapter of an athlete’s life hit her, it didn’t linger; she looked at it all pragmatically.
“I feel like I had a great legacy, I left my mark at Baylor,” Smith said. “Winning a national championship, four Big 12 regular-season conference championships. I just feel like I accomplished everything I came there to do.
“I knew it was going to be a quick turnaround whether we won [the NCAA tournament] or lost. I knew it would go fast. I was going to have to prepare myself for the draft.”
Smith finished her career with 2,048 points and 1,098 rebounds. A potential pro comparison for her game could be the Los Angeles Sparks‘ Nneka Ogwumike, the No. 1 pick in 2012 who went on to be the league MVP in 2016. Ogwumike’s relentlessness on the boards and her finishing ability at the rim are qualities Smith possesses.
“This year I spent 10 times as much time in the gym, just working on all the little things, preparing myself for the next level,” Smith said. “I knew I had to score the ball from everywhere, rebound a lot more and shoot the 3 more.
“I feel like I improved tremendously on the defensive end. Being able to help my guards through screens. Being able to switch. I can expand my defense a lot more rather than just having to stay in the paint and guard a post player. Hopefully, it translates to the next level.”
And while Smith, who wears No. 1, hopes her name is called first Monday, there are several great players who have gone to the WNBA as the second pick out of college, too: the Minnesota Lynx‘s Sylvia Fowles and Washington Mystics‘ Elena Delle Donne, who are still in the league, and retired players Ticha Penicheiro, Swin Cash, Cappie Pondexter and Alana Beard.
No matter the number in front of her name, Smith’s WNBA dream is about to begin.
“This is something I’ve looked forward to my whole life,” she said. “Something I’ve worked for my whole life.”