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Interview: Alanna Smith

PHOENIX, AZ – MAY 31: Alanna Smith #11 of Phoenix Mercury handles the ball during the game against the Las Vegas Aces on May 31, 2019 at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

Alanna Smith plays as a forward for both the Phoenix Mercury and the Australian National Team. Born in Tasmania, Australia, Smith was an All-American at Stanford University, where she was the Cardinal’s first-ever international recruit.

When did you decide you wanted to play college ball in America? 

My uncle went to college in California, and that put the idea in my head. My dad pushed it. Both him and my uncle had played professionally, so they were a big part of my basketball life growing up.

How did you decide on Stanford? 

I wanted basketball to be a vehicle to a good education, and Stanford, academically and athletically, was one of the best. It took a while to get on their radar, though. The women’s basketball team had never had an international recruit before, and I had to email them for three months before anyone responded. I stayed persistent and told them that I wanted to do a visit. They finally relented and said I could come. I had to walk right off a 17 hour flight and into a workout for the coaches. It was brutal, but I did enough to pique their interest. Other schools treat you like a celebrity when you’re a recruit, but Stanford is very business-like because they can never promise you admission. So I was thrilled when I finally got the call. I started running around my house.

What was it like going to school 8,000 miles from home? 

The first two years were rough. When I arrived, I thought I’d made it. I’d fought my way into my dream school. But because of a national team commitment, I couldn’t come to athlete orientation in the summer, so I had to jump right into classes and basketball in the fall while also adapting to a new country. It was a struggle. On the court, I wasn’t performing as well as I could, and I was having a hard time keeping up with my school work. I developed anxiety and was super homesick, but the 17 hour time difference made it hard to call my family in Australia.

Were you experiencing culture shock?  

Yes. I thought the transition would be easy because I’d grown up watching American television, and obviously I spoke English. But there were a lot of subtle cultural differences. Like a lot of Australians, I’m pretty laid back, so I had to adjust to how formal American etiquette can be, especially in restaurants. There’s so much emphasis on service here. And in Australia, we don’t tip. I kept forgetting that my first year, which resulted in a lot of side-eyes whenever I’d leave a table.

I also didn’t know what “tailgating” was. People kept referencing it during the fall in my freshman dorm, so finally I had to ask what they were talking about. I thought it might have something to do with trucks, so I was very confused.

What about on the court? Were there differences in how American players approached the game?  

For one thing, I had to start calling out plays with an American accent so my teammates could understand me. In terms of culture, it’s definitely more of a collective mindset in Australia. You always feel like you’re working as a group. The mentality in America is more individualistic, even when you’re on a team. You have to find ways to put yourself out there as a player. That’s not really the case back home.

After that first year, what kind of adjustments did you make? 

I had actually gotten a decent amount of playing time off the bench for a freshman despite my struggles, so I thought sophomore year was my time to step up and be a starter. But the season started off the same as the one before. I wasn’t playing well. I still felt homesick. Coach started a freshman over me. I kept thinking, what the hell? This was supposed to get better. 

I just had to keep grinding. Toward the middle of the season, I had a break-out game, which instilled some confidence in both myself and my coaches. I started to string more games together, and by the end of the year, I’d carved out my role as the 6th woman. We made it all the way to the Final Four. The next season, I was a full-time starter. And then my senior year, I was an All-American.

Did you ever consider quitting during those first two years? 

There were moments I came close, but I had a great support system around me on the team. And having to go through those pains and fight for my minutes meant that once I’d established myself as our top scorer and rebounder, I knew I’d earned it. And I felt I owed it to myself to go out and perform every night because of how hard I had worked to get that opportunity.

How was the jump to the WNBA?

On a more personal level, one thing I had to quickly internalize was that this is a business. You can be cut at any point during, especially as a rookie. You have to be mentally tough to go out there and do your job knowing you might not have it tomorrow.

Do you think having to work your way off the bench at Stanford helped you prepare for the WNBA? 

Absolutely. There’s something to be said for having to fight for your spot every step of the way. It weeds out a lot of personalities and teaches you to stay confident even when you’re on the bench. There are some players in this league who have been stars their entire careers, and they have to adjust to not being the go-to scorers. I don’t play some games, but I’m always ready. I know my time will come, so I have to be prepared.

Looking back on your rookie season, what stood out? 

It didn’t go exactly as I planned because of injuries, but I still learned so much from some of the best players in the world, and I got to play in the best league in the world. I’m now super keen to start my second year.

How have you changed since coming to America?

Mentally, I’m in a much better place now. A lot of my early college struggles were due to anxiety, which I’ve come to realize is a serious issue for a lot of athletes. More attention needs to be given to mental health in sports. People shouldn’t be afraid to discuss these issues. I know that for me, talking with my teammates and leaning on my family helped me develop a more consistently positive mindset. Words of encouragement from people I trusted were really important.

What are some of your current strategies for dealing with anxiety? 

I write a lot of stuff down. Simple as that sounds, it helps. Just writing out what I’m feeling helps me gain some distance from it. And on days when I’m down, I’ll list out things I’m thankful for. Doesn’t matter if it’s big or small: air conditioning, pancakes, having the opportunity to play in the WNBA. Writing it out forces me to take a step back and reflect on the privileges I enjoy. It forces me to remember that no matter my mood that day, I’m ultimately fine. I’m genuinely in a very good spot right now.

Is there any other advice you’d like to pass along? 

I’m someone who firmly believes that positivity is required if you want to get anything done. You’ll never have the necessary energy if you’re just feeling awful all the time. The right mindset has to be there before you can really get to work.

Phoenix Mercury Unveils $100 Million Practice Facility

phoenix mercury practice facility's diana taurasi courts
The 58,000-square-foot facility includes two indoor practice courts with built-in courtside technology. (Phoenix Mercury)

As part of the 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend festivities, the Phoenix Mercury officially opened the doors to their new state-of-the-art practice facility on Thursday.

Along with a host of player-driven amenities, the 58,000-square-foot, $100 million property showcases two full-sized basketball courts named after veteran Mercury star Diana Taurasi, complete with a one-of-a-kind Taurasi-inspired logo.

Phoenix mercury players celebrating at the new team training center's diana taurasi courts during wnba all-star weekend
The Mercury hosted a grand opening for their new practice facility during WNBA All-Star Weekend. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Diana Taurasi courts pay tribute to the three-time WNBA champion, six-time Olympian, 11-time WNBA All-Star, and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer.

"Phoenix is the best basketball city in the world and continues to elevate the standard in women’s professional sports," said Mercury owner Mat Ishbia in a team release. "This practice facility is about hard work, passion, and greatness, all attributes that Diana Taurasi exemplifies, and we are honored to name our basketball courts after the greatest women’s basketball player of all time."

phoenix mercury weight room
From training to recovery, each aspect of the Mercury's new facility is geared toward player conditioning. (Phoenix Mercury)

With 24-hour access for players and staff, the practice courts feature built-in technologies capable of providing real-time performance analytics. The facility also includes a strength and cardio training area, indoor and outdoor turf training areas, a functional movement area, and a team meeting room with theater-style seating.

Amenities specific to athlete recovery are also on hand, including a dedicated physician and testing room, recovery room, hydrotherapy room with hot and cold plunge pools, freestanding underwater treadmill, and two massage rooms. The locker room is home to vanity stations, a sauna, a steam room, and a wellness room.

phoenix mercury players lounge
In addition to recovery and training areas, the facility also showcases a stocked player lounge. (Phoenix Mercury)

An area for players to relax and refuel, the onsite player lounge and kitchen is stocked with private chef, snack bar, pantry, and smoothie bar.

"This practice facility sets the standard for what it means to invest in women’s sports," said Phoenix Mercury and Phoenix Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein. "From performance to recovery to team culture, we are providing our players with the space and amenities they need to be and feel their best."

phoenix mercury training facility
The new training center is a part the Player 15 Group's downtown Phoenix campus. (Phoenix Mercury)

The Mercury's practice facility is located inside the Player 15 Group's team member campus, headquarters to owner Mat Ishbia’s sports, entertainment, real estate, and investment company. the Player 15 Group's team member campus. Debuting this past April, the grounds also house business facilities for the Phoenix Mercury, Phoenix Suns, Valley Suns, and arena operations.

Skills Challenge, 3-Point Contest Open 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend

Team WNBA on the court at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
The WNBA All-Star Game court will be buzzing with action on Friday night. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

While the 2024 All-Star Game doesn't tip off until Saturday, this year's WNBA Skills Challenge and STARRY 3-Point Contest promise to light up Phoenix's Footprint Center on Friday.

The evening's programming will allow fans to watch as towering center Brittney Griner shows off her speed and mobility before putting 2024's most statistically excellent three-point shooters to the test.

In addition to the two annual events, the night will also showcase the first-ever WNBA All-Star 3×3 Exhibition, with the Olympic-bound 3×3 National Team taking on USA Basketball's 3×3 U23 National Team.

To make things even more interesting, Aflac has promised to supplement the Skills Competition and 3-Point Contest's prize pool with a $55,000 bonus for each winner.

Team USA's Brittney Griner poses in her Paris Olympics uniform.
Mercury center Brittney Griner will test her speed at the All-Star Skills Challenge. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Skills Challenge highlights league's best

Perhaps the least straightforward event in Friday's series, the Skills Challenge — in which five players will compete in a timed obstacle course testing their dribbling, passing, speed, and shooting abilities —should come down to the wire. Each contestant will attempt to complete the course as quickly as possible, with the two fastest first-round players advancing to a head-to-head final.

Ten-time WNBA All-Star Griner (Phoenix) headlines the Skills Challenge roster, accompanied by Mercury teammate Sophie Cunningham as well as Allisha Gray (Atlanta), 2019 WNBA All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler (Indiana), and newly acquired Connecticut guard Marina Mabrey.

Mabrey will be competing in both the Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest, taking the court for the first time since her requested trade from Chicago sent her the Sun.

Team WNBA's Jonquel Jones lines up a shot at Friday's All-Star practice.
Liberty ace Jonquel Jones leads Friday's stacked 3-Point Contest lineup. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Top shooters put their skills on display

Despite Sabrina Ionescu and Caitlin Clark reportedly declining to participate, some of the WNBA's best shooters will be on display in tonight's STARRY 3-Point Contest. Shooters will tally up points from five set shooting locations around the arc plus two additional "Starry Range" deep shots worth three points each.

2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones (New York) will enter a battle of the bigs with Washington's Stefanie Dolson, who sits second in the league in three-point field goal percentage this season with 48.5%.

But Jones and Dolson will face stiff competition from Kayla McBride (Minnesota), who leads the league in three-pointers made, as well as the aforementioned Gray and Mabrey.

Team USA 3x3 players Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby
Team USA's Cierra Burdick, Hailey Van Lith, Rhyne Howard, and Dearica Hamby will take on their U-23 counterparts in Friday's new 3×3 Exhibition. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend adds 3×3 Exhibition to the mix

Tonight’s debut 3×3 Exhibition will serve as a warmup for Team USA's Rhyne Howard (Atlanta), former WNBA player Cierra Burdick, college star Hailey Van Lith (TCU), and Dearica Hamby (Los Angeles), who came on to replace Sparks teammate Cameron Brink after her season-ending ACL tear.

The Olympians' U-23 opposition is also gearing up for a major event, with collegiate squad members Christina Dalce (Maryland), Morgan Maly (Creighton), Cotie McMahon (Ohio State), Lucy Olsen (Iowa), Mikaylah Williams (LSU), and Serah Williams (Wisconsin) set to play in the 2024 FIBA 3x3 Nations League tournament in Mexico City starting July 22nd.

Where to watch the WNBA Skills Challenge and 3-Point Contest

All three events will air on ESPN starting at 9 PM ET on Friday, July 19th.

Olympians Face Fan Favorites at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game

Team WNBA rookie Angel Reese at 2024 WNBA All-Star Game team practice in Phoenix, Arizona
Team WNBA is gearing up to take on a stacked Team USA roster on Saturday. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Weekend has arrived, with orange carpet fits, courtside looks, and fierce competition adding up to one epic weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, all punctuated by the 2024 All-Star Game.

Here's everything you need to know ahead of Saturday's tip-off.

Alyssa Thomas high-fives her Team USA teammates at 2024 WNBA All-Star Weekend
Alyssa Thomas and the rest of Team USA will face Team WNBA on Saturday. (Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Olympians and All-Stars take the court

The much discussed Team USA vs. Team WNBA format will take centerstage on Saturday, as Olympic preparation meets a few snubs and some surprising teammates.

The US has limited opportunities to build chemistry within their squad of top American talent, and will need to take their rotations seriously despite the game's friendly nature.

For Team WNBA, the All-Star Game could provide vets like Arike Ogunbowale and star rookies Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese the opportunity to publicly show how they match up against this year's Olympic roster, with thoughts toward the future.

Team WNBA's Angel Reese lines up a shot while fellow rookie Caitlin Clark looks on.
Saturday's showdown marks the first time rookies Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark will be teammates. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Star rookies link up for the first time

Saturday's showdown will also mark the first time Clark and Reese have ever suited up for the same team, taking the court for Team WNBA in the highly anticipated team-up of two former college rivals.

"She's probably going to lead the game in rebounds," Clark quipped when asked about playing alongside Reese.

"This is not going to be the [last] time, I know we'll be All-Stars again," Reese said about playing with Clark on last week's NBA Today. "Hopefully in 2028 we'll be Olympians together, too."

Team WNBA head coach Cheryl Miller at practice before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller will lead Team WNBA at Saturday's All-Star Game. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

WNBA All-Star Game coaches face starting lineup decisions

Fans are keeping watch on Team USA's starting five, though recent injuries to Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collier could affect head coach Cheryl Reeve's ability to immediately field the best group.

Meanwhile, WNBA legend Cheryl Miller — who coached the Phoenix Mercury from 1997-2000 — will serve as Team WNBA's boss for the night. Overall Top 10 All-Star vote-getters Clark, Ogunbowale, Aliyah Boston, and Dearica Hamby are expected to start the game for Team WNBA, alongside an additional player of Miller's discretion.

Olympians Collier and Stewart, plus A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Jackie Young, and Sabrina Ionescu also landed in the Top 10 of votes submitted by fans, media, and fellow players.

Where to watch the WNBA All-Star Game

The 2024 WNBA All-Star Game will tip off at 8:30 PM ET on Saturday, July 20th, on ESPN.

First-Time Olympian Kahleah Copper Is Seizing the Moment

Phoenix Mercury star Kahleah Copper playing in a WNBA game against the LA Sparks
Kahleah Copper's first season with the Mercury has been a banner one so far. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury guard Kahleah Copper has been working toward this year's WNBA All-Star Weekend for a long time.

2024 won't be Copper's first trip to the All-Star Game — in fact, she's been an All-Star for four consecutive seasons. This weekend also won't be Copper's greatest individual achievement to date. Afterall, it's tough to beat winning Finals MVP as part of the 2021 WNBA Champion Chicago Sky. And this year isn't even Copper's first time playing the All-Star Game in her home arena; that was in Chicago in 2022.

But this will be Copper's first All-Star Weekend as an Olympian, a title she's been striving for since the moment the Tokyo Games ended in August 2021. Back then, the 29-year-old had been one of Team USA's final roster cuts prior to the Olympics. And from that day forward, she made it her mission to channel  her disappointment into becoming an indispensable part of the 2024 Paris Olympic squad

"I wouldn't change my process for anything," she told Just Women's Sports earlier this week as she prepared to join the national team at training camp in Phoenix. "I'm super grateful for it, it has definitely prepared me. It's a testament to my work ethic, and me just really being persistent about what it is that I want."

A proud product of North Philadelphia, Copper has always been big on manifesting, speaking her intentions confidently into the universe and never shying away from  ambitions no matter how far-fetched they sounded.

"It's important to set goals, manifest those things, talk about it," she said. "Because the more you speak it, you speak it into existence." 

She also displays those goals on her refrigerator at home, forcing herself to keep them front of mind every day. The day she was named to the Olympic roster, ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted one of these visual reminders to social media: A 2021 photo showing Copper wearing a Team USA t-shirt over her Chicago Sky warmups, smiling at the camera while holding up the homemade gold medal slung around her neck.

"Kahleah Copper put out [the] photo on the left in Aug. 2021 and manifested that she WOULD be an Olympian," Rowe’s caption read. "Today she made team USA. Dreams to reality." 

Kahleah Copper of the USA Basketball Women's National Team poses for a portrait during Training Camp in Phoenix
The 2024 Paris Games will mark Copper's Olympic debut. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper turns her focus to Team USA

With one dream realized, Copper is aware that the job isn't finished, as USA women's basketball is aiming to win a historic eighth-straight Olympic gold medal in Paris this summer. That path doesn't technically begin with All-Star Weekend — where Team USA will take on Team WNBA in a crucial tune-up game — but the trial run could make a difference when the team touches down in Europe next week.

"It's serious, because other countries, they spend a lot of time together, so their chemistry is great," Copper said of her Olympic competition. "We don't get that, we don't have that much time together. Just putting all the great players together is not enough. It's gonna take a lot more than that."

With a laugh, Copper acknowledged that Team USA’s task at hand could lightly dampen the occasionally raucous All-Star festivities ("Balance!" was an oft-repeated word). But it's a cost she and her national team colleagues are more than willing to pay if it helps them come out on top in Paris. 

Of course, Copper — along with club teammates Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner — will be enjoying home-court advantage when the All-Star Game tips off inside Phoenix’s Footprint Center on Saturday, a factor that might put them slightly more at ease. 

WNBA players kahleah copper and candace parker celebrating winning the 2021 championship with the chicago sky
Copper won a WNBA Championship in 2021 alongside one of her idols, Candace Parker. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

A "damn near perfect" new WNBA team

Copper made the move to the Mercury just this season after establishing herself as a respected star in Chicago. What she joined was a work in progress, one of a number of key 2024 signings under first-time head coach Nate Tibbetts. Having played for the Sky since 2017, Copper wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of the transition. But any positive manifestations she put out about her new team seemed to have done the trick.

"I said I would never go to the West Coast, I could never go that far from home," she said. "But I didn't know that this organization was what it was: Super professional, really taking care of everything. It's damn near perfect."

Copper herself has been damn near perfect, shooting 45% from the field while leading sixth-place Phoenix to a 13-12 record on the season. She’s also averaging a career-high 23.2 points per game, second highest in the league behind soon-to-be six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson’s 27.2 points per game. It’s not lost on Copper that she’s playing in front of packed houses, with the Mercury accounting for some of the W’s biggest crowds throughout its 28-year run. 

"Here in Phoenix, our fans are amazing," Copper said. "They show up every single night."

Phoenix Mercury player Kahleah Copper poses on the court before the 2023 WNBA All-Star Game
Copper will play in her fourth consecutive All-Star Game on Saturday. (Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Copper's All-Star home-court advantage

All-Star Weekend presents Copper even more opportunities to connect with her new city, including by making an appearance at American Express's interactive fan experience at WNBA Live 2024. As part of the activation, Copper recorded a few short stories about growing up a basketball fan, describing the posters of Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, and Ivory Latta she had as a child, and how she dreamed of joining her idols as a professional basketball player. 

The Rutgers grad said she was excited about connecting with Phoenix fans on their level, rooting herself in a shared love of the sport even as she moves from watching the WNBA on TV to becoming one of its brightest stars. The message is clear: If you want something bad enough, and you work for it hard enough, just about anything is possible.

But for all of Copper's personal manifestations, she's never lost sight of the most important thing: winning. And she won't stop grinding until she's posing for the cameras in Paris, holding up a real Olympic gold medal.

"When winning comes, the other stuff will come," she said. "The individual sh*t will come."

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