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Alanna Smith on her Korean experience and playing future
It's been a roller coaster for Alanna Smith across the last 6 months and she could be forgiven for feeling a sense a deja vu.
Injury cut short her maiden WNBA campaign with the Phoenix Mercury, and it was another injury that again ended her debut season with the Incheon Shinhan Bank T-Birds in the Women's Korean Basketball League. The latest setback also saw her sidelined throughout the Opals' Olympic Qualifying campaign in France.
Just like she was 6 months ago, Smith is once again back in Melbourne, working hard on a swift recovery with the WNBA and the Olympics firmly within her sights.
The Korean experience
Smith's arrival at the S-Birds in Korea’s WKBL received massive fanfare after being selected at number 2 in the 2019 draft. The former Stanford standout from Victoria explained that her time in Korean proved a valuable learning experience.
"There’s so much to love about playing in another country," told The Pick and Roll. "Obviously, the language barrier was very difficult. I had a translator, but my teammates were very warm and welcoming. I love travelling and discovering new cities and culture."
The basketball side proved to be the most experiential of her time in Korea, but also the most imposing. Her preconceived knowledge of basketball would be challenged in a vastly different environment, calling on her skills to best assert herself in a style of basketball she was unfamiliar with.
"I came in off surgery which was tough, having to come back slowly and be patient with it," explained Smith on her return from injury.
"The league [WKBA] is quite physical and fast, constantly running back and forth which is exciting stuff. I was learning new offenses and playing out of position at centre, while trying to learn through a translator as well."
Smith may have been thrown into the deep end and forced to play out of position, but she went on to show her potential in her very first game. Against the Yongsin Samsung Bluemix, the 2018 World Cup silver medalist delivering a monstrous 28 points and 11 rebounds.
Across her 10 games before injury, Smith averaged 12.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocks in playing almost 24 minutes per game.
Yet while Smith’s time in Korea proved fruitful for her growth as a basketballer, it would be cut short by another injury, this time a stress reaction in her leg. It was an untimely setback which also prevented her from stepping out on court for the Opals at the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in France.
"I felt something was off in one of my games but, as you do, I didn’t think much of it when it happened," explained Smith.
"I was diagnosed with a stress reaction a little over a month ago, and I decided to fly back home to rehab and be around family. Injuries are a setback, nobody wants it but it’s part of the game. It’s not long term or serious which is good, and it gives me another chance to slow down and relax."
Opals Olympic quest
Smith's positive attitude toward her injuries is well beyond her years, displaying the mental fortitude of a veteran when discussing her latest injury setback. Her extended time off will allow her to fully recover in time for WNBA preparations, which begins in May, as well as Opals camps and practice matches ahead of Tokyo.
While Smith joined the Opals in France as they booked their ticket to Tokyo, the 2018 World Cup final was the last time she has stepped out on court for the national team. Despite missing out in France, she feels privileged to have the faith of her coaches to warrant a place on the team, even if meant biding her time.
"I haven’t been in a camp since the last World Cup, but I feel honoured that the coaches and staff have so much faith in me to bounce back and have me part of the squad.
"We left it a little late to qualify, but we left it all out on the court which was amazing to watch. We knew Brazil weren’t going to come out without a fight and you could see the passion on the court from both sides. We can’t afford to underestimate anyone [in Tokyo], we need to be on our A-game every game."
For the immediate future, Smith's next steps are clear cut. She’ll complete her rehab, prepare for the upcoming WNBA season with the Mercury before then turning her attention to the Olympics.
Smith missed out on almost half the 2019 WNBA season due to injury, playing 18 of the Mercury’s 34 games en route to an 8th seed in the postseason. She averaged 1.1 points, 1.9 rebounds in 7.5 minutes, and it was something she is looking to build on under the direction of Opals head coach Sandy Brondello this year.
Smith’s ankle injury of last year will be well behind her when she returns to Arizona. A full WNBA preseason and Olympic campaign on the agenda could see her stocks soar and propel her further up the pecking order at Phoenix.
Looking beyond Tokyo, Smith has the world at her feet. It could also include a return to play at home in Australia in the WNBL as soon as next season.
"I watched a lot of WNBL this season, it’s growing so much and there are so many strong players, and the talent pool is amazing," enthused Smith. "It’s a league I’d definitely play in - I’ve even thought about joining next season though I’m not sure the time is right just yet.
"Through my injury, I’ve learned to take things a day at a time because plans can change very quickly. Europe is an option, Asia could be another option too. My philosophy is to put myself out there and get as many experiences while I can. I’m keeping myself open to any and all options."
Smith and the Phoenix Mercury begin their WNBA campaign on May 18th against the Seattle Storm.