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The Phoenix Pipeline: Smith could become the Mercury's next Aussie great
Michele Timms. Michelle Brogan. Penny Taylor. These legends are some of the names that sit atop the long list of Australians to have played in the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.
It is a list littered with luminaries of not only the Australian game, but women’s basketball worldwide. Now, Alanna Smith attempts to become the next Australian to earn the title of fan favourite, by a Mercury fanbase that goes by the name of ‘X-Factor’.
Already a World Cup silver medallist from her time as a member of the Opals squad in 2018, Smith now links up with her national team coach, Sandy Brondello, at WNBA level. The serendipity of the situation is not lost on Smith, who finds herself in an ideal situation that, depending on the coach, a lot of players would like to find themselves in.
“It sounds cliched but it is a dream come true. I’m so excited, it seems like the perfect fit,” the ex-Stanford star told The Pick and Roll.
“it just seems like everything’s fallen into place perfectly for me. I’ve been able to be drafted to a great team at Phoenix, under a great coach, who’s not only coaching this WNBA team but also the Australian national team, so I’m in a very, very good position as an Australian player.”
Not only is Brondello, Smith’s coach in the WNBA, she is also the coach that handed the Hobart-born forward her first national team call-up, that culminated in Smith’s selection to the 2018 World Cup roster that won silver. Whilst Smith was a solid college player then, the idea of being drafted as high as #8 was utterly unfathomable, until she returned to Stanford with a renewed confidence in her own game.
“I think that experience really, really helped me with my own self-confidence, and just helped my game. When you’re shooting with confidence and playing with confidence, you can tell.
“Even my (Stanford) head coach Tara (VanDerveer) said that she could tell. I remember she told me that she called Sandy and was like ‘Wow, she’s so confident!’
“She was really happy with it, and it’s great because it’s a mental thing. Basketball’s a very mental game, and I’m just really, really grateful for that experience because it did help me have the season that I had.”
That season, which set Smith up for a shot at being drafted in the first round, saw her secure no less than five All-American selections, whilst also picking up the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She also led her team to a second Pac-12 Tournament title in her four years on The Farm. That tournament, in which Smith also won Most Outstanding Player, saw the senior lead the Cardinal to victory over an Oregon team that had defeated Stanford by 40 points on their own court just 2 months earlier. It is a resume that most players in the nation would love to have, but on draft night, nothing is guaranteed - not even when you have more connections to Phoenix than a telephone switchboard.
“It was one of the possibilities, but I wasn’t banking on it. You never know with the draft, especially with this draft class. But I’m very, very happy that I am going to Phoenix.”
However, Smith is more than aware of her part in the bigger picture, not only at Phoenix, but in the scope of Australian basketball, where she is now a member of an elite group to make their way into the highest-profile women’s basketball league in the world.
“I mean, in any team that I’ve played on, you have to have in the back of your mind that you’re representing your country as an individual in any team that you’re a part of. You always have to take pride in being Australian, and that’s something that I’ve always tried to keep in mind.”
“Myself and Ezi [Magbegor] are in this position and have this opportunity to play in the league, but we’re lucky that we’ve had other players to lead the way. We’ve had Penny Taylor, Lauren Jackson, those great players to lead the way too. I think the future for Australian basketball is really, really exciting, it’s just the beginning.”
“I mean, it’s important that [Phoenix and Seattle] have this representation of Australian basketball players. That pipeline has been there for a while, and it’s really cool that I get to be a part of it and I get to be one of those players that gets to lead the way, and show young Australian athletes that it’s a possibility.”
Penny Taylor; a name synonymous with both the Opals and the Phoenix Mercury, not only in Australia but around the basketball world. Despite retiring in 2016, Taylor is still very much a part of the Mercury family, but with the Australian WNBA cohort growing, the Australian basketball legend will be just one of many that Smith has the opportunity to lean on in her rookie season.
“[Penny] has been involved with Phoenix, and she’s right there amongst it, for sure I’m going to lean on that. But you know, there’s a lot of other players from Australia that have been in the WNBA.
“You’ve got Liz [Cambage] in there, Cayla George, Bec Allen, Steph Talbot, who’s with Phoenix. So as much as I’ve looked up to Penny and I’ve watched her when I was a kid, there’s so many other players too that I’ll be able to get some help from too.”
As much as Smith will be able to lean on her fellow Opals, there is still a lot of hard work to be done. Not only does she still need to make the Phoenix roster, Smith also has another Opals campaign to look forward to, with the Tokyo Olympics just 15 months away.
“I think that as a basketball player, if you’re not looking to improve, you’re not going to be a great player, so I think that there are always aspects of my game that I want to keep improving on.
“I think one of those is my ball handling. I want to play on the perimeter a little bit more, and get into the guard spots and play the three a little bit more. When you have a player like Brittney Griner in the paint, who’s as skilled and big as she is, you have to be able to be a threat on the perimeter.
“I think that defensively, I’ll be ready to play at the pro level, based on my length and versatility, just being able to guard someone in the paint or on the perimeter as well.
“I think having that three-point shot at my height really gives me an advantage, being able to stretch the floor. I’m ready to be an option on the perimeter, whether that’s shooting the ball or distributing to others, but whatever role Sandy needs from me, I’m ready for it.”
Of course, the WNBA is Smith’s immediate focus, but in the world of women’s basketball, the word ‘off-season’ has been all but removed from the dictionary. Players regularly play in Europe or Australia when not playing in the WNBA, and for Smith, who is yet to play a WNBL game, that decision is one she will have to make at some point over the coming months.
“It’s definitely in consideration right now. Obviously, I’d love to go home and play at home, but I’m still trying to make the decision whether that’s what I’m going to do.
“You know, having the Olympics next year obviously impacts that decision as well. It’s still in the works, and I guess I’ll have to make that decision in the future.”
Whether or not Smith does come home to play in the WNBL, there is little doubt that Australian basketball fans will be seeing plenty of the emerging star, be it in the purple and orange of the Mercury, green and gold of the Opals, or another jersey entirely.