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USA Basketball will face China in the FIBA gold-medal game
Welcome to the big time.
“All we did was scream because we were so excited,” Small said. “I felt like it was so much better for me at that moment because I wasn’t expecting it.”
If you haven’t seen the video already, it’s worth a watch. Even if you have, it couldn’t hurt to give it another peek.
“That reaction that you saw was so genuine — my enthusiasm and my excitement was just through the roof,” Smalls said. “It was incredible to be surrounded by a couple of my friends and have my family on the phone screaming at the top of their lungs, too.”
“Smalls you did it, you brought your dreams to life,” she told herself. “You might be helping another little girl right now feel like it’s possible to go big when they might be seen as small.”
Oh, and it was her 22nd birthday.
“I forgot it was even my birthday once I got drafted — that’s all that mattered,” Smalls said. “God sent me the best birthday present I’ve ever received in my entire life, wrapped up in a yellow bow.”
Smalls has been an underdog at mid-major James Madison since her debut. Playing No. 13 Tennessee, Smalls scored 15 points, hauled in 12 rebounds and added three steals and an assist. Starting every game her sophomore season, Smalls averaged 15 points per game, but shot just 28.3% from behind the arc on a team that went 23-11.
Then, junior year, Smalls led James Madison to a 29-6 record, but played just 8 minutes in the regular season finale due to a broken hand. In the first round of the conference playoffs, still ailed by injury, Smalls missed her only start of the year and played just two minutes in a heartbreaking loss to Hoftsra. In the WNIT, however, Smalls was back on the court and led her team to the semifinals.
By then, Smalls figured out her shot. Junior year ended with a 38.0% clip from 3-point range. Senior year, when the CAA playoffs were cancelled by COVID-19, Smalls once again had exactly a 38.0% 3-point average, and the Dukes were 25-4.
“It broke my heart,” Small said. “I was so excited for this year and I was all ready to win a ring. When I found out that we weren’t going to be able to finish the tournament, I shut down for awhile. I thought that the tournament was going to affect my level in the WNBA Draft — that I needed the tournament to push my name up and out there for the draft. I was devastated.”
So, Small missed out on the conference playoffs in her final two years of college ball. Looking forward, however, Smalls will enter the WNBA with a highly translatable skill: 3-point shooting. On her new team, the Fever, only two players finished the 2019 season with a higher 3-point percentage. Paris Kea shot 55.6% on 27 attempts, and All-Star point guard Erica Wheeler finished the season shooting 38.4%.
If you ask Smalls though, shooting isn’t even her biggest asset. It’s her energy.
“Always energy,” Smalls said. “I’m a hype kid, 24/7, whether I’m on a bench or on the court.”
That mentality will go a long way toward not only making the Fever’s roster, but succeeding when she gets there. The Fever are led by first-year head coach Marianne Stanley, who spent the past nine years as an assistant with the Washington Mystics, helping them win the 2019 WNBA championship. Her most recent opportunity in the head coach’s chair came back in 2003, when her new general manager was gearing up for her second year in the league.
Pokey Chatman had been the head coach and general manager for the Fever for the past three seasons, but after three losing seasons and a 28-74 combined record, Indiana made a change. One of the newest members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Fever legend Tamika Catchings, was brought in as general manager.
The Fever have 15 professional-caliber players for just 12 spots. Unlike Lauren Cox, the Fever’s draft choice with the third overall selection, the road to a roster spot is murkier for Smalls.
Small was the CAA Player of the Year this past season and ends her James Madison career fourth in points (1,888), fifth in field goals made (686), fifth in three-pointers made (188) and fifth in scoring average (14.5) as the fourth overall draftee from the school.
Tamera Young was the first from James Madison to make the leap to the WNBA, going eighth overall in 2008 to the Atlanta Dream. In 2016, the Minnesota Lynx took Jazmon Gwathmey 14th overall. Lauren Okafor played her junior and senior seasons at James Madison, but chose the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University over a WNBA career.
It is understandable for there to be doubts about a mid-major prospect. But against elite competition, Smalls found ways to help the Dukes, even as defenses game-planned against her. In 24 minutes against eventual presumptive first-seed Maryland in the third game of the season, Smalls scored 14 points, shot 2-for-6 from 3-point range, and was a perfect 4-for-4 from the line.
“Just because I played at a mid-major school doesn’t mean that I can’t hang with the big dogs,” Smalls said. “It wasn’t about any expectations for myself. It was more about other people’s belief in me.
“I was just hoping that somebody saw the fight in me and the will.”
Was pretty late to the game on Kamiah Smalls. Potential hidden gem of this class. 38% from 3 the last 2 seasons, 3 level scorer, really impressive shooting splits with such a big role for James Madison pic.twitter.com/FPtDU7bcCd— Ben Dull (@ben_dull) April 22, 2020
The Fever did. The highlight tape is impressive, and it is why Stanley believes in Smalls’ future. Last season, Smalls had experience both at point and off-guard, but Stanley sees her even playing the three.
“Kamiah is an athletic guard who can play any one of the three guard positions,” Stanley said. “Good on both ends of the floor, and another player who just brings a lot of energy and passion and skill to the table.”
Another coach, picking later in the draft, was hoping Smalls would fall to their team, but Indiana got there first. Stanley recalled getting a text from this opposing coach saying “dang that was our player.”
The Fever signed three players with international experience to a training camp contract in the offseason, Hungarian 6-10 center Bernadett Határ, Belgium national Julie Allemand, and former DePaul guard Jessica January. All three will be competing with Smalls.
“I always think I have something to prove,” Smalls said. “In a lot of ways, I’ll probably be an underdog because a lot of people don’t know my name. Maybe they haven’t even watched me. I’m just not as out there as other players like Sabrina Ionescu. I feel like a lot of people will probably underrate me, but they’ll find out real soon who I am. It is what it is.”
Even in our current situation, Smalls is undeterred. And who would expect anything different?
“My mentality always stays the same,” Small said. “I’ve been working hard my whole life. This pandemic isn’t going to slow me down. It’s not going to stop me. You find your ways to stay in shape to make sure you’re up to par when it’s time, when everything does finally decide to happen.
“I’m going into this with an open mind,” Smalls added. “I’m a people’s person. I think my teammates are going to love me. I think I’m going to love them. I think the coaching staff is going to love me and I’m going to give them my all. I’m going to hope that my all is enough and go out there, play my best and, fingers crossed, everything works out.”
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