August 29, 2022 

Kianna Smith ready to build off her rookie season

It was a season of back and forth for the rookie as she did her best adapting to the pro game

It was a bit of a whirlwind season for Kianna Smith.

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After being selected with the 16th overall pick in the WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks, Smith came to training camp with a non-guaranteed contract and an uphill battle trying to make a roster that was very guard-heavy at the time.

Sure enough, she was one of the team’s final cuts heading into the regular season. The Sparks came into camp with three draftees in Smith, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Amy Atwell and the latter two had a solid preseason showing, making the final roster cuts very difficult. The Sparks ended up cutting some players they had familiarity with in Te’a Cooper and Arella Guirantes in favor of Nelson-Ododa and Atwell.

That wasn’t the end for Smith, however. Smith was brought back on a seven-day contract in early July with the Sparks dealing with a short-handed roster due to injuries. She saw minutes in two games before her contract expired and with a few healthy bodies back in the lineup, the Sparks did not extend her stay.

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That might have been the end of Smith’s 2022 WNBA season were it not for a major shakeup in late July. Liz Cambage, the Sparks’ prized offseason signing, decided to walk away from the team and thus opened up a roster spot. With the Sparks in the midst of the playoff hunt at the time and needing someone who could contribute immediately, they turned once again to Smith.

Smith was initially signed to another seven-day contract on July 26 and after that, the Sparks signed her for the rest of the season. Although it was a lot of coming and going, Smith was grateful that the team believed enough in her to bring her back each time.

“The experience has been amazing. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been cut and then come back; it’s just about resiliency,” Smith told The Next. “It’s to keep being ready for the moment because you never know when it’s going to happen. And I’m super grateful for the coaching staff and the organization for thinking highly of me enough to bring me back. So the experience has been amazing.”

When the Sparks drafted Smith, one of the main things that former head coach and general manager Derek Fisher mentioned that they saw in her was her ability to play point guard. Smith is naturally a combo guard able to shift between the one and the two. She played a lot of point guard her first two years in college at Cal under former head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. As a freshman in 2017, she led the Golden Bears in assists at 4.8 per game.

She ended up transferring to Louisville after her sophomore year at Cal and it was with the Cardinals where she ended up shifting over and playing more off-ball. She really came into her own as a scorer at Louisville, averaging double-digits in scoring over her two years as a Cardinal, but that playmaking and ball-handling ability were always there. During the 2020-21 season, her junior year in college, she was third on the team in assists with 2.2 per game. The following season as a senior, she led the Atlantic Coast Conference in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.64.

Smith saw minutes this season at both guard positions and gained some valuable experience playing point guard at the pro level. It helped that she had veteran mentors such as Kristi Toliver and Jordin Canada to show her what it means to be a floor general in the WNBA.

“As a point guard, you have to know the system and what the plays are and stuff. Having a lot of opportunities to play the one here and learning behind Jordin and KT a lot, I’ve been picking their brains a lot as well; it’s just a lot of learning. I’ve been super grateful for that,” Smith said. “KT and Jordin have been great for me just because they’re guards as well and they’ve been in the league for a long time. . .I just really tried to pick their brain.”

During the final week of the regular season, former interim head coach Fred Williams had high praise for Smith. It wasn’t just her on-court ability that led to her being re-signing during the season when the Sparks needed healthy players. Her demeanor and positive attitude were something he first noticed back in training camp.

“It’s how she works every day, being on time and being the last one out. She does a great job of being a great teammate. She’s pretty quiet, but she’s always working hard doing the little things to make herself better,” Williams said. “I think right now she’s in the stage where she’s not really sure of herself sometimes out there. . I think she’s learning and watching the game, especially the opponents she’s guarding and watching the speed of the game, it’s a little bit faster. Once she gets a hold of all of that and gets some more experience with it, she will become a better player.”

Smith’s playing time this season was often sporadic and varied from game to game. During her first seven-day contract, she played in two games. Against the Phoenix Mercury on July 4, which was her first WNBA regular season game, she had three rebounds, two assists and one steal in eight minutes of play in a win.

When she was brought back on another seven-day contract and then signed for the season after the departure of Cambage, Smith played in nine games and had her best game as a pro in the final game of the season against the Dallas Wings. She had a season-high ten points and shot 40 percent from three-point range.

Smith always seemed to know her role and never strayed from it. She didn’t try to do too much or play out of her comfort zone. She knows her role isn’t to score as many points as she can and she knows that being a positive on the defensive end is key to carving out consistent playing time in the WNBA.

“When I’ve gotten minutes, it’s don’t let the person that I’m guarding score, and if I have my opportunity, shoot. Make open shots and don’t turn the ball over. It’s just basically giving positive minutes when I’m on the floor and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Smith said. “There’s still so much to learn. The speed of the game, the physicality of the game, it’s a lot different. It’s just continuing to learn and get better that way for when I go overseas and stuff like that.”

Now that the Sparks season is over, Smith will be heading to play overseas in South Korea. The team holds her rights for next season, although it’s entirely too early to tell what the roster will look like in 2023. Whatever the future holds for Smith in terms of her WNBA career, one thing is for sure; she’s going to use what she learned this year and continue to work on becoming the best player she can be.

“I’m always the type of person to just learn and take all my mistakes and just get back in the lab and learn from it,” Smith said. “Next year, hopefully, those aren’t mistakes anymore.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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