The NCAA’s name, image, and license rules—which went into effect last year and have since allowed college athletes to make money by advertising brands and marketing their own—are also a boon to sportswriters. There tend to be two prevailing questions vis-à-vis star players: how did they get where they are, and where are they headed? Now bespoke logos and hashtag-optimized credos tell us the answers, or at least get partway there.
Earlier this month, in a hallway of Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium—site of the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championship—I asked NaLyssa Smith about her iPhone case. Baylor’s star power forward had spent the season hoarding accolades: first-team All-American (for the second straight year), conference player of the year (ditto), the consensus first or second pick in every respected forecast for April’s WNBA draft. She’d bumped up her already-lofty averages to 22 points and 11 rebounds per game, and when we spoke, she’d just bullied her way to a career-high 37 points in a win over Oklahoma. (After the game, Sooners coach Jennie Baranczyk shrugged about Smith’s onslaught of back-down layups and jump hooks: “I don’t know what we can do with her.”) Smith’s family even got in on the act, with father Rodney and brother Rodney Jr. winning a $6,600 gas card in a halftime shooting promo.
But Smith’s phone case was stamped, in bright, italicized all caps, with her tagline: SLEPT ON. She’d won every award, scored nearly every bucket—so had the motto passed its expiration date? Who was overlooking her now?
“I feel like I’ll always be slept on,” Smith said. “Like you said, I’m one or two [in draft position]. I’m still slept on if you don’t think I’m one off the bat.”
On its face, the notion that a player with Smith’s accolades could be underestimated is a little laughable. Her time in the public eye began when she was already a five-star recruit out of San Antonio’s East Central High School with a stint on the U.S. under-eighteen national team to her credit. But the slogan serves as a useful delusion for someone looking to level up to ever-more-exclusive rungs: first pick, WNBA All-Star, Olympian, champ. Smith’s senior year at Baylor, which began with a surprise coaching change and ended last weekend with an upset loss in the NCAA tournament’s second round, showed how quickly things can change, how little forecasts mean. Better to consider herself slept on than be caught sleeping.
The slights haven’t always been imagined, but it takes some rewinding to find a legitimate one. When Smith was in third grade at Windcrest Elementary, her mother, Nikki, got a call at work from a teacher asking her to bring a change of clothes. A fifth-grade boy had talked trash to NaLyssa and challenged her to play one-on-one during recess, so she’d cut her way out of a restrictive dress to play in undershirt and shorts. Nikki asked how the game went. “She has to keep playing basketball,” Nikki remembers the teacher saying with a laugh. “She dominated that poor boy.”
At 21 years old, NaLyssa Smith is hard to underestimate. She stands six feet two, with rangy, well-muscled arms and a wide pivot radius. When she runs the floor in transition, her sneakers clap the hardwood; when she puts a shoulder into her defender, she elicits a sometimes-audible oof. The springy curls of her hair accentuate a light-footed athleticism—Smith attacks the boards via angled leaps, snatching up a few rebounds per game that should by rights have gone to better-positioned players. But between plays, her expression is all alpha cool, jaw working a wad of gum, eyes scanning for weakness.
If a great player’s self-assurance is an asset on game day, it can be an impediment on the practice floor. Smith’s freshman season with the Bears ended in a national title; in the championship game, she came off the bench in place of injured All-American Lauren Cox to notch eight points and four rebounds for a one-point win. She might have counted on continued success as a matter of course. Instead, back home that summer, she enlisted San Antonio trainer Jarrett Turner, whose first task amounted to opposition research. “The first thing we agreed on: she’s trying to go to the league; she’s not that tall,” Turner said. Overpowering defenders would make her a college great, but it would also stunt her possibilities at the next level. “The biggest thing was being able to do everything, one through five,” Turner said, describing the change-of-direction quickness of a point guard and the heft of a center. “Be limitless.”
Through her junior year at Baylor, Smith did most of her damage near the basket, to fine effect. The Bears were ranked third in the nation, with Smith averaging nearly fifteen points per game as a sophomore, when the 2020 season got cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the next year they reached the Elite Eight as she led the team in scoring and rebounding.
Over the summers, though, she and Turner drilled moves she rarely got to use in games. As a rule, athletes love routine, and training regimens tend to hold to round numbers: a thousand jumpers hoisted, two hours of ball-handling drills executed. But Smith practiced spin moves and in-and-out fakes without a clock; the only marker that mattered was progress. “We didn’t keep track of the time, and we didn’t move on from something until we actually got it down,” Turner said. “One move, we’d spend three or four hours on it, take a little break, and get back to it. She wanted the groove of it, the natural feel.”
This was the slept-on ethos in full force—one of the best players in the country devoting herself to expanding her game during the off-season to prevent opponents from catching up to her. Then, the summer before her senior year, Smith’s problems got less theoretical when Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who had presided over all four of the school’s Final Four appearances and three national championships, left for LSU. Bears fans worried about whether their star would follow suit by jumping into the transfer portal, but Smith saw the arrival of Nicki Collen, who’d spent the previous half decade as an assistant and head coach in the WNBA, as just the sort of turbulence she’d been prepping for. She met with Collen and pleaded for a more dynamic role in the Bears’ offense: opportunities to bring the ball up the floor and shoot from the perimeter. Collen obliged. “It’s been a blessing in disguise, if you ask me,” Rodney Smith said.
The day before the career high against Oklahoma, Smith had put up a workaday stat line: fifteen points and ten rebounds in a forty-point win over Oklahoma State. To watch her, though, was to see a player who knows not to let floor time, even in a blowout, go to waste. Smith’s philosophy of improvement is cumulative: “The more you do something, the more comfortable you feel at it.” Midway through the third quarter, she settled into what might have been a routine with Turner, pivoting into a teardrop hook shot on one possession, then blocking a layup attempt on the other end, then crossing over (the groove of it, the natural feel) into a jump shot.
It is the way of things that most college careers end in defeat, but Smith’s last game was among her worst. She made just four of eleven shots, and the Bears lost by fourteen to the tenth-seeded University of South Dakota. There are bigger things to come—her pro career will start in less than a month, with April’s draft—but for a daughter of Texas who grew up idolizing Brittney Griner, the way she finished at Baylor remains a bitter pill. After Sunday’s loss, Smith didn’t appear at the press conference podium, and Collen shed tears at having disappointed Bears fans in her first season.
Smith’s absence was surely due in part to straightforward hurt, but it’s also hard to imagine what more she could have said. In her basketball worldview, success is fragile and contingent, doubt the only constant. There’s something somebody else has—a certain spin move, a Sweet Sixteen berth—that she doesn’t. It’s her job to get it. She’d spoken the week before about what falling short does to a player—what it does for a player, if she’s wired right.
“Any time you lose, you got to focus on that film. Watch it over and over,” Smith said. “It should eat you up.”