NaLyssa Smith

The Captain's Journal: NaLyssa Smith

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: MK Ridgway
Savanna Collins
Mar 02, 2023

The final buzzer sounds on Sunday night in Fair Park Coliseum and NaLyssa Smith is still sweating after her third consecutive double-double.

She may not know it yet, but she’s at the top of the leaderboard. She and her teammates head to the iPads to cast their MVP votes to reward those who made the biggest impact in the game. Smith is voted MVP 2 for +60 points and it’s locked in: she’s going to be captain of the Blue team in Week 2.

She quickly changes out of her uniform and heads to the car because, in the next hour, she’ll pick the team that will don her name.

It’s the quickest turnaround a group of Athletes Unlimited captains has ever had with little time to strategize and mull over picks with their facilitator.

So as Smith drives the 25-minute trip to the studio where the draft is live-streamed, she decides one thing for certain: she’s going to get Kelsey Mitchell.

“Because it was such a short week she wanted to get people she was comfortable with,” Smith’s facilitator Zak Buncik said. Mitchell is a given, they went 2-1 together during Week 1 and are teammates on the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.

Smith went on to draft two more teammates from her Week 1 group and as she looks at her roster, she’s excited.

“I picked a team that knows how to run, knows how to be aggressive,” Smith said after the draft. Her only regret is not going to get Lexie Hull, the third member of the Fever squad, before Odyssey Sims scooped her in the third round.

Comfortability is a recurring theme between Smith and Buncik when they discuss the week. After playing three games in four days, the players needed rest and most teams, including Smith’s, took Monday off from practice.

That left the captain and her facilitator to answer the question, “How quickly can we mesh on a one-day turnaround?”

Turns out for this group, very well.

Smith describes herself as a laid-back captain and she’s right. She casually guides practice along with Buncik on Tuesday and her easygoing attitude leaves space for everyone on the team to give input.

Guard Sydney Colson is directing the traffic of the offense as they install plays. DiJonai Carrington is injured but pressuring her team to focus on defense from the side. Then, Kelsey Mitchell suggests an option, a double brush that really gets everyone really excited.

What started as a quiet practice led by a fairly quiet captain had gotten much louder in two hours.

“You gonna see a lot of times where I’m not the main one talking in the circle ’cause I let them, you know, do what you gotta do,” Smith explained. “We’re all pros so I love having help from everybody else.”

Stepping out of the comfort zone

Technically, Smith isn’t a first-time captain.

Although in the official AU record books this is the first-ever team she’s led, she was a captain during the scrimmage games. Buncik was her facilitator for those games too and said this second time around Smith has embraced the role differently.

“The first week she just kind of wanted to step away from it and just play. This week she came in with a plan of what she wanted to do offensively and defensively which was really good to see from her.”

The experience is pushing Smith, requiring more from her than just playing. She’s not usually one to tell her teammates what to do but now as a captain she’s asked to draw up plays, make subs, and corrections.

“I never wanted to coach in my life either, so it’s kind of new to me,” Smith said. “But I feel like it’s something I could add to my little arsenal.”

Letting the game speak for itself

What Smith assembled in just three days with her team withstood a challenge that would crumble others.

They opened up the series on Wednesday night vs. Team Harrison and trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter. Calls weren’t exactly going their way and they could have given to the frustration.

Instead, the veterans Smith entrusted and empowered during practice stepped up. The team went on a 12-0 run to come back and take over.

Colson scored a season-high 16 points with a game-high seven assists and three steals. Mitchell dropped 20, plus she hit a three from the corner to give the team the lead with just 31.1 seconds left.

Isabelle Harrison cut the game to 85-84 but down the line with 8 seconds left, Mitchell drew a foul and split two free throws for a two-point advantage.

Team Smith had clawed back and won the game.

“Regardless of the score, we all just stuck together. There was no pointing fingers, there was no blaming. Nobody. We all collectively just came together and wanted to win,” Smith said in the postgame interview.

Smith was asked in that interview how it felt when the team looked at her in the final moments but she said they weren’t looking at her, they were looking at the vets.

“The vets told them what to do. They kind of said, ‘Keep punching in to Lyss, she’s having success.’ So I’m glad that I didn’t disappoint them.”

How could she have disappointed them? She put up 28 points and 12 rebounds. Smith went to the free throw line a league-record 11 times and hit 12 out of 15 shots from the stripe. It was her fourth straight double-double and she’s the only AU athlete to ever start her season with that stat streak.

It’s clear in just four days following Smith as a captain that she’s begun to master what many who are asked to lead face: knowing when to step up and when to step back. And if there’s one aspect Smith has yet to struggle with at AU so far, it’s leading by example.

Smith’s teammates rally around her game on the floor. Busting for rebounds, driving to the hoop regardless of any bodies along the way.

She came to AU looking to build her leadership skills and she’s found it. When asked if she’s been tested in the ways she expected Smith said, “Oh absolutely.”

“This game was a big one. It showed how you just gotta keep pushing, keep talking.”


Savanna Collins is the Digital Media Reporter at Athletes Unlimited. You can follow her on Twitter @savannaecollins.

Join the Unlimited Club

Unlock exclusive benefits with your FREE membership


  • Follow Your Favorite Sports
  • Enjoy Virtual Fan Events
  • Chat on the Community Board
  • Vote for Game MVP, Seasonal Awards 
  • Play in the AU Fantasy League

...and more