Amber Smith playing power forward? Lindsey Cunningham couldn’t foresee it, but that’s what the coaches told her on the first day of practice in 2016. Smith, an incoming freshman was only 5-foot-11: far smaller than a typical Southeastern Conference post player.
It didn’t take long for Cunningham, then a redshirt senior, to realize what the coaches saw in Smith’s game. She made up for her size with intelligence and athletic instinct, timing her jumps and using creative post moves to score.
These are skills she’s continued to use her junior season, and they’re only part of her arsenal.
“Anyone that knows basketball and is around the game and has even just come to a few Mizzou games, they realize that she truly is the X-factor,” said Cunningham, who worked several of Missouri’s nonconference games as a color commentator on SEC Network.
Smith has averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a game heading into Thursday’s SEC opener against Ole Miss. Only WNBA prospect Sophie Cunningham, Lindsey’s younger sister, scores more than Smith.
Smith can play as a guard, as she often did when the Tigers had taller players on their roster, and she’s provided rebounding on a smaller-sized team this year. As a high schooler in Louisiana, she played every position on the court.
Coach Robin Pingeton said Smith spent her first two college seasons growing comfortable in Missouri’s system. That didn’t stop her from having success: She was co-SEC Freshman of the Year in 2017 and averaged 9.3 points as a sophomore.
“She was just trying to plug in gaps where we needed her to,” Pingeton said. “She understood (this offseason) the importance of asserting herself a lot more at both ends of the court and understanding what we lost at graduation and the voids that needed to be filled.”
So far, that’s meant crashing the boards. Missouri lost All-SEC forward Jordan Frericks to graduation, and 6-foot-4 senior Cierra Porter hadn’t played until coming out of medical retirement Sunday. Smith leads the Tigers with 113 rebounds — over 20 percent of the team total.
She has also been an effective shooter from three-point range, knocking down 33 percent of her shots from behind the arc.
Even when she unwinds, Smith often surrounds herself with basketball. She plays basketball video games and watches games — both college and professional — on TV.
“I will go back and watch some women’s games because I would say we’re a little bit more fundamentally sound,” she said. “Guys play off instinct a little bit more, but I still watch both.”
Lindsey Cunningham said Smith has a strong feel for the game. She knows where to position herself on defense, when to use her explosiveness, and in what situations to push the pace of play.
“It isn’t something you can teach,” Cunningham said. “It’s something you can develop and try to better understand, but it’s also one of those things that you’ve kind of either got it or you don’t.”