How Opals rejection and Poland expedition saw Alanna Smith rise in the WNBA

ByMegan Hustwaite ESPN logo
Monday, June 19, 2023

The foundations for the WNBA campaign which has elevated Alanna Smith into most improved calculations were built last year on deep disappointment.

A World Cup silver medallist with the Opals in 2018 and Olympian in Tokyo, Smith, 26, was cut from the Australian squad for its home World Cup campaign in Sydney last September.

So as her teammates, many of which she wore the green and gold uniform with on the international stage, prepared for the once in a lifetime opportunity to play a major tournament on home soil, Smith set off for Poland.

And her first European season was a grind she'd embrace.

Smith would only sit on the bench if in foul trouble, she'd adjust to the schedule and playing three times a week, as well as the gruelling travel and 10-hour bus trips. In her rare time off she'd explore, sharing the adventure with teammate and fellow Aussie Chantel Hrovat.

Smith would be crowned league MVP and return to Australia a different player and person to the one who'd left six months earlier after World Cup selection heartbreak.

"I think in the end it kind of lit a fire, I just went over to Europe and wanted to smash it wherever I'd go," she tells ESPN.

"It really hurt and I still get a little emotional thinking about it. It's the nature of basketball and especially national teams and we're really lucky in Australia we have a big group of high-quality women's players competing for those spots.

"Unfortunately, someone's going to miss out and it was me. It was really tough because I'd been so heavily involved with the Opals for the past couple of years and I'd been really, really invested and gave up a lot to be part of the Opals, as you do when you want to represent your country.

"Not being able to make that team hurt a lot and I was a little bit worried it would take a hit on my confidence too because I'd been struggling with that over the last few years.

"It was like a grieving process, I couldn't focus on the grief. I obviously supported the girls and wanted them to do well but I just needed to focus on myself too.

"I never thought I'd come out of playing in this tiny town in Poland playing this way."

Playing this way has Smith in career-best WNBA form with Chicago Sky.

The forward, who was selected with pick 8 by Phoenix Mercury in the 2019 draft, is enjoying a strong June.

She posted a career-high 18 points against New York earlier this month, equalled it two days later against Indiana then bettered it with 19 points against Las Vegas last week.

Smith spent three years at the Mercury under Opals coach Sandy Brondello before landing a contract with Indiana Fever in 2022. She was cut after 9 games.

She knows it's a cutthroat business and it's why when she joined the Sky she went "into this experience open to whatever happens".

"As an international player you go over (to the WNBA) super nervous and unsure of what's going to happen, there's a lot of pressure to perform and if you don't perform, you're cut," Smith explains.

"Indianna didn't need me on their roster, they were super young and moving in a different direction which was fine.

"I wasn't super gutted, it was fair enough. I went home, played in Townsville, saw the sun for a few months and won a (NBL1) championship."

Perspective and resilience have been built through setbacks and a string of injuries that have sidelined Smith or restricted her from optimum performance in recent years.

"Whenever I go to a new team, you do physicals and they ask about your injury history and I go on to list what's happened and how long I've had to sit out, I'm always really confronted when I tell people and get their reaction. You don't really think about it until you look at it accumulatively, at the time you just focus on a specific injury and getting through it," she says.

"It's been a grind and it might not look like that on paper, I've made teams and been in and out of the WNBA. I'm definitely not complaining about the opportunities, I've been very, very fortunate but a lot of it has felt like an uphill battle.

"Even in the WNBA, I wasn't really playing that much. I didn't make the World Cup team. It's competitive and I feel like I've been competing super, super hard for the past three to four years and really battling super hard and this year finally, finally, I've felt like I'm playing like I know I can play and having fun while doing it too.

"And that's what I'm most proud of. I've gone through this battle and stuck with it despite thinking to myself so many times 'why am I doing this?' and then coming out the end having found this place where I can compete and play well and have the best time doing that."

From Townsville to Poland and now Chicago, Smith feels good and it shows on the court.

"I'm in a really, really good place mentally and physically. My main priority for my career right now, and what I'm putting first, is to enjoy it because at the end of the day you can do all these amazing things and get all these accolades but if you're miserable it's not really worth it.

"I just want to have fun and enjoy it while I can because it's fleeting, you don't get to play basketball that long.

"I'm chasing the fun and the joy of the game."

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