Kamiah Smalls remembers shooting hoops until exhaustion set in.
On most nights, her mother had to interrupt the marathons, wrangling the young South Philly girl home for dinner from the basketball courts at the former George W. Childs Elementary School at 17th and Dickinson streets. And her mom had to return on the same mission hours later at darkness.
“(The court) was right around the corner from my house and I spent literally every single day there,” Smalls said. “When I say my mom had to come around and drag me off that court, she was like: ‘It’s time to come home.’”
Home just became a little farther away, as Smalls was drafted by the Indiana Fever last week in the third round of the WNBA Draft. The Fever used the 28th overall pick to select the James Madison University senior and 2016 Neumann-Goretti High School graduate.
Smalls was surrounded by close friends on campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia and she had her family connected through FaceTime as she celebrated her 22nd birthday while watching the WNBA Draft on ESPN.
Smalls’ name flashed on the screen, and both parties erupted in cheers.
“When we saw my name pop up on that screen, I’ve never seen a group of people so happy for me,” Smalls said. “It warmed my heart in so many ways, not just because of Indiana but because I got to experience that moment with so many other people.”
Smalls said she’s never been to Indiana and didn’t expect to be drafted, but she did expect a crack at making a professional team through other avenues.
“Honestly, I did not expect to see my name on that TV but I was expecting at least a training camp contract,” she said. “I thought at least somebody would give me a chance to go out there and show them that I can compete with these people at the next level. But seeing my name on that TV hit totally different.”
Smalls has been patient for most of her basketball career. Playing for Neumann-Goretti presented some challenges, as the Saints were nationally ranked for most of her tenure and Smalls had a tough time cracking the starting five annually surrounded by Division I recruits. She bided her time and made an impact off the bench, soaking in big-time experience on the largest stages that high school ball could offer.
“I was the sixth man for the majority of my high school career,” Smalls said. “I came off the bench and I was that spark off the bench, if anything. It just instilled a tough mindset in me with a lot of patience as well. I wasn’t rushing to be in that starting lineup. I was just waiting for my turn.”
Saints coach Andrea Peterson never hesitated to call on Smalls in those big moments. And Smalls helped deliver back-to-back PIAA Class 2A state championships with a smile.
“Kamiah was one of the most outgoing student-athletes I have coached,” Peterson said. “Her passion and love for the game is something you can’t teach. All those pictures of her smiling while playing the game shows the passion and love.”
Smalls was touted as a three-star recruit who committed to James Madison University to study kinesiology after graduating high school and she made an immediate impact as the Colonial Athletic Association’s unanimous Rookie of the Year in 2017. But Smalls said it was sophomore year when things took off, after learning under the wing of Precious Hall, who set the single season JMU record for points in a season (847) during Smalls’ freshman year.
“Sophomore year was when the key really got in my hand,” Smalls said. “Coach (Sean O’Regan) really started pushing me more. Precious really left that legacy and left that dog in me.”
Smalls ended up scoring 1,888 career points at JMU, which is fourth all-time in school history.
In her final season with the Dukes, she finished the year averaging 18.6 points per game for a 25-4 team. JMU was on a nine-game winning streak before the season was canceled due to the pandemic. The Dukes were 103-30 in Smalls’ four years there.
Despite attending a smaller school, Smalls became the fourth player to be drafted into the WNBA from James Madison, following Tamera Young (2008), Lauren Okafor (2015) and Jazmon Gwathmey (2016).
“I’m one of those mid-majors that popped up on that list,” Smalls said. “There were big schools that went after me. And I think that in a lot of ways, a lot of people will underestimate my skills. You come from James Madison, you come from a mid-major, everybody automatically thinks we’re average, which isn’t the case at all. We can ball. They can think whatever they want, and I’m going to let my play talk for itself.”
The Fever, who won a WNBA title in 2012, missed the playoffs for the third straight year in 2019. Smalls expects to bring some energy to the team once the league resumes action. She’s training in Harrisonburg, where she said she enjoys running the hills in Shenandoah Valley. When the phone rings to report, she’ll be ready.
“My adrenalin is running, I’m ready to get it out,” Smalls said. “I’m just making sure I stay as ready as possible and prepare myself and make sure I’m ready for the moment now so I don’t have to get ready for it then.”
Peterson pointed to Smalls’ work ethic and personality and said she’s certain Smalls will fit in Indiana’s plans.
“She was always that player that pushed others to be better and worked on her craft to become the best she could be,” Peterson said. “She’s a winner and champion on and off the court and will continue to carry those ways into her future endeavors in the WNBA. Kamiah will be loved by everyone surrounding the Fever community and beyond.”