Alanna Smith: Overnight success years in the making

The campus of Stanford University is known to all in the Cardinal family as The Farm, as the land the university stands on was once the farm of founders Leland and Jane Stanford. It is a nickname perhaps befitting the location of Alanna Smith’s first season and a half in college basketball, where no amount of hard work was guaranteed to reap tangible benefits.

As much as the Australian sophomore put in the hard yards in the time between her freshman and sophomore years, that work didn’t immediately show itself on court once the season came to pass. Although the team was enjoying a level of success, Smith acknowledged that her performances in the opening stages of the season were not at the level she wanted to see herself at.

“I think there’s always that feeling of frustration when you’re not performing the way you know that you can or the way that you want to, but it’s really just about pushing through that and persevering,” Smith explained.

Despite the frustration, the work that the Australian had put in allowed her to remain positive going forward as the season progressed.

“I think as you go through your college career each year, you definitely do progress, and it may not show at the start of the season, or even in the first few games, but it definitely shows when you get to crunch time,” Smith revealed.

“I mean, you couldn’t really see it at the start of the season, and it can be frustrating when it doesn’t show on court, but it eventually pays off, all the work that you’ve put in.”

That pay-off initially came in the form of a 24 point outing against Oregon in early January. Against a young but dangerous Ducks side, Smith dominated against their much-vaunted front court on her way to shooting 9-15 from the field and a perfect 5-5 from the line to lead the Cardinal to a 3-0 record to start the Pac-12 schedule.

“When you’re the outstanding performer in one of the games, it definitely gives you that confidence and that boost,” Smith explained.

“Just to know that, I can do this, and I can make an impact, and it just rolls on from there.”

That confidence doesn’t magically appear overnight though. Smith also benefited from the presence of one of college basketball’s greatest coaches in her corner at Stanford. With over 1,000 wins under her belt, Tara VanDerveer is mentioned among the legends of women’s college basketball coaching alongside the likes of Geno Auriemma at Connecticut and the late Pat Summitt of Tennessee. A coach doesn’t win that many games over such a long time span without being able to get the best out of their players, and Smith bought right in to what VanDerveer was offering.

“Honestly, I think it was just a confidence thing for me personally," added Smith. "I think Tara is really good in that she gives her players her confidence, and it’s about how you feel as a player.

“So, coming off my freshman year and everything, I wasn’t feeling that confident. And I think I just needed that one breakout game to do really well, like kind of get back in the groove.”

With confidence restored and that outstanding performance against Oregon under her belt, Smith set about becoming one of the focal points of the Stanford line-up. Whilst it didn’t come immediately for the sophomore, a combined 44 points in two games against arch-rivals California in the space of a week, well and truly announced Smith to the college basketball world. With experience playing for Australia at age group world championships, the occasion of the big game is one that Smith has learned to handle with aplomb even at this stage in her college career.

“Having experience on an international level helps," said Smith. "I think you always get nervous before big games, but not to the point where you psych yourself out.

“You’re there to play basketball, you’re there to do what you love, and if you’ve played on an international stage, you know that nerves can help, they can also hinder too, so you just have to use them to your advantage.

“I find that visualisation really works well. I actually learnt that from a sports psychologist, to visualise yourself doing the stuff that you know you can do really well. And finding support in your teammates too, that can really help. Having really good camaraderie on your team is awesome, I’ve found.”

Whilst the Australian’s performances in the latter stages of the regular season showed marked improvement from her first season and a half at Stanford, Smith stepped up massively in the post-season. While her 18 points in the Pac-12 championship game led Stanford to a comeback 48-43 victory in upsetting Oregon State, that game was simply a precursor to an astounding run of five consecutive double-figure performances in the NCAA Tournament. Her run included a double-double of 14 points and 12 rebounds in the Elite Eight loss to eventual national champions South Carolina. However despite her spectacular individual performances, Smith credits those around her for her achievements in the biggest games of her college career to this point.

“Going into tournament time can be pretty nerve-wracking, but if you’ve got level-headed teammates and a good coaching staff who believe in you, and believe in what you can do, then that really pushes you forward,” Smith revealed.

Coaching staff. Once again the name Tara VanDerveer comes to the fore. Her resume alone inspires confidence in her players, and the way Smith talks about their relationship only serves to show the bond that she has with her players, and the confidence that her Australian forward derives from playing under her. With an Elite Eight and a Final Four under their belts in the last two seasons despite coming into the NCAA Tournament as a #4 seed on both occasions, the current crop of Stanford players, like those before them, have learned that outside expectations matter far less than what VanDerveer believes they can do.

“Tara’s a very well-decorated coach, she’s won over 1,000 games and been to the Final Four numerous times, so she knows what it takes,” Smith explains.

“If (a national championship) is a goal for her, if that’s something she expects of us, then we follow along, because we know that she means business. She knows what it takes, so if she believes in us, then we’re going along for the ride.”

Whilst a championship hasn’t quite eventuated yet for the Australian, with star forward Erica McCall graduating andforcing her way into the WNBA, Smith will now become one of the leaders as the Cardinal look to win their first national title since 1992. Already playing starter’s minutes despite coming off the bench for the entirety of the 2016/17 season, Smith is more than happy to do whatever job is required for the team to succeed, be it as a starter or as sixth woman for the Cardinal.

“I was playing behind ‘Bird’ (Erica McCall), but for me, starting wasn’t that big of an issue," said Smith. “It’s great to start, but starting is something that, for some players gives them a lot of confidence and everything, but I’m fine coming off the bench.

“I just want to have an impact on the game, so I don’t have a problem with starting or coming off the bench. If I’m having an impact, and I’m doing what I know I can do, starting doesn’t really impact that for me.”

Her wildly successful season with Stanford complete, Smith’s basketball focus remained on being the best player she could be in her junior and senior seasons. However, Opals coach Sandy Brondello was just about to come along and throw a spanner in those plans in the best way possible, handing Smith a call-up to the FIBA Asia Cup selection camp in Phoenix.

“I didn’t know I was in the coaches’ plans! So it was really exciting to get that call from Sandy to go to Phoenix,” Smith laughed modestly.

“I was super-grateful to be a part of that squad, and to be able to go and learn and experience it with the best players from our country was awesome.”

Although Smith may have been grateful for the opportunity and surprised just to get the call-up to be part of the training camp squad, things were about to get a whole lot more surprising. Shortly after the team was selected, front court players Alex Bunton and Abby Bishop were ruled out through injury, leaving two spots open. Alice Kunek filled one of those positions, whilst Smith was offered the chance to make her Opals debut, taking the other vacancy. Not that Smith had any idea that she was that close to making the team in the first place. Forever modest, Smith almost puts her call-up down to being in the right place - or position on court, as it were - at the right time.

“I think that everyone at camp did a really good job," shared Smith. "It was really hard to pick standouts in everything, because everyone was working really hard.

“So I wouldn’t say there was a particular time or moment where I was like ‘yeah, I’m going to get the call-up.’ I just fit into the box of what they needed with that injury, so I was just happy to get that opportunity and do what they needed me to do.

“I tried not to put too much pressure on myself. Being the youngest there, there was no expectation to just show out or anything. I just did what they expected me to do, and tried to do it to the best of my ability.”

While the Stanford sophomore’s performances for the Opals may have been exemplary as the team reached the championship game before going down to Japan in a thriller, there was another side of the experience for Smith: the learning process. Age group world championships are one thing, and Smith had been in camp with the Opals as a training partner in previous years, but the tournament experience was simply on another level for the youngest member of the roster.

“It was awesome, it was so cool," gushed Smith. "Just the chance to be able to be around top-calibre players from my country, and just learn.I was the youngest there so it was a massive learning experience for me.

“It’s just another level of professionalism as an athlete on and off court, so I was super-grateful to be around athletes and a coaching staff like that.”

After averaging 10.8 points per game to be second on the team for scoring and one of Australia’s best players throughout the FIBA Asia tournament, the time may have come for Smith to start re-thinking her short-term goals. As one of Australian basketball’s hottest prospects, the 2022 World Cup was always on the radar. However the process has seemingly accelerated four years in a matter of weeks, as Smith put herself firmly in contention for the 2018 edition of the tournament next September. Yet with a number of players set to return to contention for the team after missing the FIBA Asia tournament, Smith is under no illusions about how much competition there is for places.

“Look, it is a goal of mine to be on that 2018 World Cup roster, but we have great players," explained Smith. "I was just happy to be a part of that (FIBA Asia) squad. Something I really want to work towards is being on that World Cup team. I’ve got a little over a year to do it, and we’ll see how I go.

“I didn’t think it was something that was going to be achievable for me to do. But once I got the call from Sandy and got to talking with the coaching staff and everything, they helped me kind of re-align where I should be and where I want to be in the future in terms of Australian basketball.”

With her plans for the future at an international level changing rapidly, at a college level, Smith's personal goal remains the same: to put herself in the best possible position to secure a spot in the WNBA.

Smith was almost considered a protege of recently drafted Stanford star Erica McCall, and now comes the Australian’s time to establish herself as the star of the Cardinal front court, and perhaps, follow her mentor into the best women’s basketball league in the world.

“To be drafted would be awesome, and with a coach like Tara behind me too, I think it’s possible to do so,” Smith added.

“But there’s still a lot of work to do, and I’ve still got two more years, so I’m lucky I’ve got some time to really put in work. But being drafted would be awesome, and it is a goal of mine to hopefully make it in there.

“[Having Tara VanDerveer as coach] is a huge advantage. She’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know in the basketball world. Her basketball knowledge is awesome, and I’m just trying to soak it up while I’m at Stanford, to be honest.”

With a family that includes a father, Darren, who played in the NBL for over a decade, and an uncle, Jason, who captained the Boomers in two Olympics, as well as an aunt, Jo Straatsma, who won a WNBL title with the Hobart Islanders, basketball is certainly something that runs in Smith's family. With that kind of pedigree, international experience under her belt, and one of the best coaches in the game in her corner, Australian basketball fans have every reason to be excited at Alanna Smith’s development over the next few years, and indeed throughout her career.