December 27, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
It had been seven, long minutes since Troy converted a bucket.
So long, Warriors coach Roger Anderson joked on the sideline in the early December game against Legacy of South Gate: “We haven’t scored in oh, maybe, I don’t know, a month?”
Senior Kianna Smith – face stone cold, hair slicked back in her signature bun – caught the ball at the three-point line in the corner. Everyone knew: the 6-0 Cal commit was about go for the kill.
“She can always get a shot off, whenever she wants,” Troy point guard Hope Kakihara said.
Smith paused with her dribble – getting a rise out of her defender – then exploded past. Running into a help defender, Smith shook free, floating to the rim for two points.
“She makes moves look so effortless,” Anderson said. “But you know how hard what she’s doing is.”
There’s a coolness to Smith, who scored 18 points in the 69-41 victory, a smoothness that lets her to attack at freeway speeds but finish amid standstill traffic.
She spends hours perfecting these moves.
Smith was named to the 2017 Naismith Trophy Girls High School Player of the Year Preseason Watch List and has been notified that she is a McDonald’s All American nominee.
“You always have to have goals to reach,” she said before the game, hugging a basketball on her lap. “I’m never settling. I’m always trying to reach the next goal.”
Smith is known for her lethal step-back move. Just when a defender thinks she has Smith contained, Smith dribbles as if she’s going to attack, then dips her shoulder down and shuffles her feet to step back, allowing her to create space and elevate for her jumpshot.
Sometimes, she pulls from three feet beyond the three-point line. She has calculated the exact sliver of daylight she needs to get a shot off, just as she deciphers when to drive and when to dish.
She learned basketball IQ from her family. Her father, John, is associate head coach for Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball, and her brother, Jamal, plays for Fullerton. John’s father, the late Lucky Smith, who at 6-foot-6, was one of the NBA’s first big point guards in the late 1960s. John’s brother, Steve Smith, is an assistant coach for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.
John, who taught his daughter the step-back her sophomore year, instilled in her to never be in a rush on the court. “My father imparted that on all of us,” John Smith said of Lucky. “He was also a Tae Kwon Do instructor.”
Smith learned toughness from her biggest competitor: Jamal. The brother-sister, one-on-one games sometimes ended in fights.
“No matter what, we always have each other’s backs,” Jamal smith said. “We just want to make each other better.”
Last season, Smith wasn’t playing aggressively in a game for Troy. To prepare her for playoffs, John Smith told his son to play his sister tougher than he ever had before; don’t even let her put the ball on the ground.
The first possession, Jamal Smith blocked her. Smith fought back, through tears, even throwing the ball at her brother, but scored.
And when she dusted the dirt off her shirt afterward?
“He hugged her like, ‘Look, I was just trying to make you tougher,’” John Smith said. “He has really shaped her into the player she is today.”
Smith often makes herself drain 25 shots in 20 minutes, sprinting up and down full-court, a drill Kobe Bryant does. She doesn’t allow breaks, simulating a real game, even when her legs feel like jelly.
After school ends at noon, she walks across the street to Cal State Fullerton, making 250 shots in Titan Gym. Then she returns to Troy for practice.
“She’ll come in sore,” said Troy’s Naomi Hunt, a Long Beach State commit, “but she’ll still get in as many shots as she can. Even during water breaks.”
The first game this season, Smith, who also tries to work out with a strength and conditioning coach three times a week, seemed sluggish and struggled on the floor. Later that night, she worked out with her younger sister, Kylee Smith, running suicides with an elevation mask on, which restricted her oxygen intake.
“She was going at it all night,” said her mother, Kelly Smith. “She’s very competitive with herself. She doesn’t settle.”
Smith has had to work because before last summer, many didn’t know who she was.
As a rising sophomore, the then 14-year-old was placed on the top 16-U showcase team for West Coast Premier, alongside players such as Kennedy Burke, who now plays for No. 10 UCLA.
Smith hardly left the bench.
“I was not good at all compared to my teammates,” Smith said. “Playing with them and seeing them get these offers, I learned a lot. I wanted to work 10 times harder to succeed at that level.”
Steadily improving, she finally broke through last summer.
“She was a woman amongst girls on the court,” West Coast Premier coach Brian Crichlow said. “She made all the Division I coaches wish they would have recruited her. She made all the players who may not have known her, ask, ‘Who is she?’”
“She put all the opposing coaches in awe because she hit big shots, she made big passes, she got big steals, she got big rebounds,” Crichlow said. “She just went all out against the nation’s best.”
Now the ranked the No. 21 prospect in 2017 per ESPN, Smith is averaging 22 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.6 steals a night for Troy at shooting guard, though she will play point for Cal.
She dropped 26 against Etiwanda and 23 against Alemany in back-to-back contests earlier this month and 28 points against Westchester on Dec. 20. Troy was 5-3 as of Tuesday.
“She probably has a great possibility to play at two more levels,” Anderson said.
Smith said she wants to bring the young Warriors a CIF title – the team lost 10 of 14 from last season, including Barbara Sitanggan, the only player at Troy to be a four-time All-State and All-CIF player.
Against Legacy, Smith slid into the paint and sensed three defenders sticking to her. She could have forced the shot to pad her stats, as Troy’s lead ballooned. But seeing a lane, Smith threaded the needle and delivered a perfectly-timed bounce pass to Michelle Lee down low, who popped in the layup.
“As the leader, I have to calm everyone down,” Smith said. “I just don’t take it as pressure. It’s more responsibility. It means I have to show up every night to play.”