August 18, 2023 

What the Indiana Fever lost — and learned — without NaLyssa Smith

The Fever knew NaLyssa Smith was an important piece of the team, and her time on the sideline hammered home the point

A player’s absence from the lineup can sometimes reveal what they really mean to a team, and the Indiana Fever found that out without NaLyssa Smith for over a month between July and August.

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Smith, the second overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, is having a strong second season. Her scoring, rebounding and efficiency are all up from her rookie campaign, and she is improving on defense. Advanced stats paint the forward as a positive-impact player on both ends of the court. When Smith plays, things go well for the Fever.

This season, Smith missed nine games between July 9 and August 8 with a foot injury, and Indiana went 2-7 in that stretch. The team’s net rating, which is ninth in the league at -5.6, was -10.1 with its starting power forward sidelined. It was already known that NaLyssa Smith was important to the Indiana Fever, and her time on the sideline hammered home the point.

“We miss her for sure,” Fever forward Lexie Hull said just before Smith’s return. “A really strong presence inside.”

On the season, Indiana is +2.05 points per 100 possessions better with Smith on the court than off, per pbpstats. That difference is largely a result of the Fever’s offensive jump with Smith on the hardwood. The team shoots over three percent better from two-point range with the second-year forward in the action, and the team’s possessions are longer thanks to her 2.2 offensive rebounds per game (which ranks 10th in the league).

Smith’s talents on the glass were apparent during her time on the mend. Only A’ja Wilson and Alyssa Thomas average more rebounds per game than the Indiana Fever forward, and for a team that ranks ninth in defensive rebounds per game, Smith was needed.

“Rebounding. She has a nose for that offensive glass, offensive boards,” Fever head coach Christie Sides said when asked where the team misses Smith. “She just changes the game, she changes how people can guard us.”

That latter point ended up being very important. With Smith out, Sides had a few different players holding down the four spot including Victoria Vivians, Emma Cannon and even Amanda Zahui B. for a few minutes. All three contributed in different ways, but they weren’t defended in the same way Smith typically is. Instead, defenses could shift more of their attention to Aliyah Boston down low.

“It makes people guard Aliyah differently,” Sides said of Smith’s absence. Hull noted something similar not long after.

“Obviously, we have really good players, but she brings that extra attention,” Hull said. The second-year wing has overlapped with Smith often, including in Athletes Unlimited, since the two were drafted together last year. “A lot of attention currently is on Kelsey [Mitchell] and Aliyah, and to kind of give them a little less pressure will be really nice. She does everything for us.”

Boston averaged 15.0 points per game on 61.9% shooting for Indiana’s first 19 games. Then, Smith went down. Over the next nine games, all without the talented forward, Boston averaged 13.9 points per game and shot 52.0% from the field.

“Lyss is going to do her thing. Night in, night out she’s going to do her thing,” Boston said. Since Smith’s return, Rookie Of The Year candidate Boston is averaging 16.7 points per game on 77.8% shooting across three games.

It’s hard to track this in a box score, but those numbers and quotes detail how much Smith has improved her general presence. Her timing, cutting and spacing are strong this season. When she catches the ball, she makes quick decisions. Her shot fake into a drive combo has bent many defenses this season. This year, Smith’s improvements do more than just make Smith better. They make the Fever better.

Without her, that all became more obvious. Indiana struggled to score efficiently, and it led to one of the poorest stretches of the season. “Lyss’ presence is missed all around. Not just in one specific aspect,” the veteran forward Cannon explained.

Indiana Fever big NaLyssa Smith descends from mid-air while holding her jumper form as the ball travels towards the rim, while Washington Mystics big Elena Delle Donne leans towards Smith in midair with an outstretched arm in a failed attempt to block the shot
NaLyssa Smith (1) shoots in a game against the Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2022. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Smith returned last Tuesday against the Sparks. Indiana looked better, but lost another clutch game that night. Two days later, they smacked the Lynx to get back in the win column, and they played the Liberty tough not long after. Her return has already boosted the team’s effectiveness, even when coming off the bench on a minutes limit.

“It felt good,” Smith said after her return, an eight-point, six-rebound outing against Los Angeles. She shared that she had been pestering the team to get back out there for about a week.

Just 48 hours later, the Baylor product went 6-for-11 for 12 points in the win over Minnesota. It didn’t take long for her to get re-integrated and look effective. The Lynx struggled to slow her down, and the Fever dominated that night.

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Perhaps that small bit of growth for Smith came as a result of her observations while she was sitting out. Some players feel as if they gain a new appreciation for their team when injured, and Smith is no exception. “I feel like being on the sideline, you put a lot of things into perspective,” she said. She helped the coaching staff by tracking runs, and one game she even held a clipboard on the bench. “It just showed a lot… sometimes our mistakes are us.”

Smith loves the game, so being away was hard. But she is back on the court, and it didn’t take long for her effectiveness to return. Her most recent outing featured 15 points, nine rebounds and 50% shooting. New York struggled to contain the growing second-year player.

NaLyssa Smith can rebound, play with force and make defenses rotate and react. That’s a valuable player. The Indiana Fever knew that, but with the growing forward out, it became even more clear.

“She’s building up her game at all three levels,” Hull said. Those improvements made Smith more difficult to replace, and both the Fever and Smith learned a lot in her absence.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

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