The Chicago Sky are currently 8-9 and own the sixth-best record in the WNBA.
The team has seen its fair share of injuries, dating even back to preseason when it learned that one of their prized free agent signings — Isabelle Harrison — would be out indefinitely due to a torn left meniscus.
That would then be exacerbated by an ankle sprain that kept Morgan Bertsch sidelined for three weeks, and also Rebekah Gardner — in the same game on May 26 vs Washington — would sustain a left foot injury that required surgery and hasn’t returned to activity since.
That’s a heavy toll to work through, all in the first third of a season where you’re trying to mesh new pieces together and establish roles + chemistry.
At the same time, enduring said injury adversities so early allows for the team not to have the pressures that a second half of the season typically shows.
Injuries are part of the regular season marathon, and also present opportunities for others to showcase what they are capable of and carve out their own role.
Alanna Smith has been a key piece to all things the Sky have established and will continue to be as they incrementally grow back whole.
Former Coach James Wade had just spoken on how good and integral of a piece she is to this team, the day before the news of his transition took place.
“She’s been good. This is what we saw in Poland. This is what I saw at Stanford. Alanna just needs people to have her back, know that they believe in her, and give her direction,” said Wade.
“She’s really intelligent, and sometimes I just want her to trust her feel, and kind of not overthink when she misses a couple and now she doesn’t look at the rim.”
Alanna Smith has been used in a multitude of ways this season.
Offensively, she’s spent time often operating as a connector — executing as a hand-off hub and handling their ‘Delay’ actions, screening on and off-ball, rolling, popping, spacing (and abilities to drive off of stretching closeouts), and cutting.
Generally, using her IQ and versatility as a weapon, while also helping to set, maintain, and/or execute within advantages.
Defensively is where she’s really earned her staying power and been most effective.
Customary to the Sky’s defensive identity, she immediately fits the mold as a fleet-footed frontcourt piece that can guard her yard against all offensive archetypes, from the post, to the perimeter, and everywhere in between.
She’s capable of staying in front of the ball on switches and late switches — often flattening out drives with a good understanding of angles and body positioning, is plenty capable as a hedging piece, and can hold her own in a drop — all done with a disruptive and frenetic level of activity/physicality, to the legal limit.
She’s averaging 1.3 blocks per game, and 1.5 blocks per game this season —- both career-highs.
On a broader scope, she’s one of just nine players averaging north of one block and steal per game.
Zoom in, and you’ll see that she’s one of just three players presently at her mark (or better) in “stocks” per game or better, in the company of former teammates, Breanna Stewart (1.7 SPG, 1.6 BPG), and Ezi Magbegor (1.9 BPG, 1.3 SPG).
(Sidenote: she’s doing it on the second to last minutes per game mark, at 27.7 per game.)
This is some *elite* company she’s in, on impact, while on a volume lesser than the aforementioned two.
“She’s got some game man. When she’s locked in, she’s a good defensive player. She’s a good WNBA player, and I think it’s being noticed now and I’m just glad because she’s an even better player than she is a person,” said James Wade.
Past the on-court moments that are represented in box scores, her processing enables her to be a “switch anchor,” putting out fires that come in the Sky’s often aggressive defensive scheme, on the perimeter.
She’s often positioned behind Elizabeth Williams — who’s typically hedging out — on the backline, kicking teammates out of post mismatches to neutralize an advantage created by rollers and directing traffic in that controlled chaos, flattening out an attack by jamming rolls, or even scram switching teammates out on the flight of the pass, in some scenarios.
Smith can also often be seen executing timely “peel switches,” off of post players, to thwart opposing drives from out on the perimeter, as they near the restricted area.
“I’m just that type of player that just wants to do everything for the team. I want to play defense, I want to rebound, and I want to score. I also think that I’m versatile enough to do it in different ways. So I really attribute my success to the confidence my team and my teammates have in me.”
The abundance in depths of her versatility has helped her to not just stay afloat, but truly seize the opportunity presented to her both with the Sky and amidst the injuries that’ve enabled her extended burn and opportunity.
She’s multi-faceted, communicative, and disciplined.
Her skill and abilities unlock a ton of their lineups, as well as actions because of how teams choose to defend her.
To appreciate her, is to pronounce her name correctly.
The phonetic pronunciation of her first name is: uh-LAN-uh, and she’s said to say it like Atlanta, in hopes that it’s better pronounced moving forward.
Let’s zoom in on a handful of plays where her acumen and feel for the game have jumped off the screen.
Her general drives have been extremely good for the Sky. They often come via her teammates setting the table and creating opportunities for her to attack a closeout, and she is adept at doing so whenever she is momentarily left unattended.
Notice here how her ability to space as the four, in a more than viable manner, truly stretches the rotation of Stewart as she peels in to condense the space on the Copper-Williams pick-and-roll.
Subsequently, Stewart is then put in a closeout situation, an advantage, and she exacerbates it by using her prowess as a spacer (notice the urgency on the closeout from Stewart, still with 18 seconds on the shot clock) to drive the closeout, which holds the defensive rotations under the basket, and sets up Copper for a catch-and-shoot mid-range attempt.
Next, we’ll see more of her drives having a positive impact on the offense, as they help to connect both for herself and to others in a manner that serves as a great counter to the spacing she provides, and the type of closeouts she generates – where a defender will have a level of urgency when she is the player receiving the ball.
Notice on these, how adept and comfortable she is with her left hand on these drives, the comfort and feel in playing off the pop, and playing off the bounce.
Her left-hand drives are good for 1.059 points per possession, and she combines that effectiveness with a 71.7 percent efficiency at the rim, on a career-high in volume of attempts from there (accountable for 39.6% of her attempts).
She is really good at maintaining, and executing within advantages, while also creating for others as well.
Her versatility in popping and spacing enables her skills to all mesh together, in addition to what was shown above, all combining to help her unlock a ton of dynamics and lineups for the Sky.
Notice the pace and timing at which she slips and ghosts out of these plays. Some, she counters defensive automatics, others it’s just off feel.
I spoke with her last month and gained insight as to her thought process in discerning when to roll and when to pop in these scenarios:
She truly processes the game well.
Speaking of that, where her feel and IQ truly shine come on the defensive end, starting with her hands in accuracy and anticipatory skill.
She is a catch-contest savant, as she does great with never making a catch comfortable, manipulating a pass to be where she wants it to be, then poking it free.
This can also be seen on a handful of her rangy blocks compiled this season.
Notice the rotation made here, as the low man on Mitchell’s re-screen reject. Alanna anticipates well, chooses a great angle en route, and gets to the release.
Additionally, she’s able to finish the sequence with a trail three, further showcasing just how dynamic of a weapon she is. (She’s compiled a ton of defense-to-offense sequences similar to this one).
Here, she displays her athleticism. Tags the roller well, runs Hamby off the three-point line with an appropriate closeout (with a hand up as well), recovers with contact to steer the drive, then blocks it to also regain possession.
She’s also great defending in rotation, and off-script.
In theory, a defensive possession is rarely won by one player… but if ever there were one, this is in alignment there.
The flat show and recover, plus two switches that also flatten out the Fever defense, finishing with a block to stamp the stop. Great display of versatility and being a connector on defense, keeping the shell intact and finishing the play.
Here she is on another switch early in the possession, then toggling to being a smart help defender as the lowman. Peeling in early to take away the pocket pass on Boston’s roll, sending the Fever offense off-script, and finishing with a board.
Here’s an example of her being a switch anchor, keeping match-ups appropriate and communicating from the back line.
This was a great “kick-out” switch she communicated, with Copper, as the Copper-Kone switch created a mismatch, and Smith quickly erased the advantage Indiana attempted to create.
Lastly, how many players (especially frontcourt pieces) will press up on Stewart for 90 feet? Also, how many can do so successfully? She duped Stewart here by enticing her to drive, going completely off-script of their offense, and trusted her help from the backline to assist, which was followed by two (!) Sky defenders in position to take a charge.
“Underrated basketball IQ, said Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Courtney Williams.
“She *sees* the game. I think that it’s overlooked because she does all the dirty stuff, but — I see you big dawg.”
Her IQ is certainly underrated and is a huge reason why, especially from her position, she is such an integral piece to this Sky team.
She’s carved out a great role with this team, benefitted by the extended opportunity to do so amidst injuries, and will surely be a driving force behind where this team ultimately can finish the season.
Opportunity plus her growth as a player have her primed as a viable candidate for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award.