As recruiting stories go, how Kaylee Smiler ended up at BYU is a little bit different than the norm.
The redshirt freshman guard has earned more playing time lately and figures to play a big role this week for the Cougars, who host Saint Mary’s and Pacific in games that will likely determine second place in the West Coast Conference.
BYU has a nice pipeline to New Zealand, starting with all-conference player Kalani Purcell in 2015. This season, the Cougars have three Kiwis on their roster: Seniors Kaiden Tato and Shalae Salmon and Smiler. BYU coach Jeff Judkins said BYU is recruiting several other players from that country for the future.
Smiler performed well in high school and club basketball. She planned on going to BYU-Hawaii but the school gave up on college athletics after the 2016-17 season. Since the Smilers and the Purcells were family friends, Kaylee’s uncle sent Kayee’s highlight video to Kalani Purcell directly. She gave the video to BYU assistant coach Ray Stewart, who called Kaylee and invited her to come to Provo on an official visit.
“I was like, ‘Really? Right now?’” Smiler said. “It was super close to summer semester starting. Myself and Signe Glance (who is from Sweden) had our official visit. I was home about three weeks and then came back to Utah to start summer semester. It was kind of a whirlwind.”
Smiler and Glance signed with BYU in late May of 2018.
Smiler redshirted during the 2018-19 season.
“It was actually very helpful,” Smiler said. “Everything is different here: The culture, the people, the school … it was kind of crazy. To be able to redshirt and to learn how the coaches are and about my teammates, it really helped me.”
Through the first 14 games of this season, Smiler played around five minutes a game as BYU coach Jeff Judkins searched for the right combination coming off the bench. On a road trip to Pacific and Saint Mary’s in mid-January, things changed.
BYU junior guard Paisley Johnson sprained her ankle during warmups against Pacific but played through the pain and scored a career-high 31 points in a 76-66 overtime victory. Two days later in Moraga, California, Johnson dressed and warmed up but trainers decided she shouldn’t play.
“The coaches told us right before the game that Paisley wasn’t going to play, and I was like, ‘Here we go,’” Smiler said.
Smiler didn’t start but she played 29 minutes, scoring a career-high 19 points on 4 of 4 from the 3-point line in a 68-58 victory. She is shooing a team-leading 45 percent (9 of 20) from beyond the arc.
“I was glad that when my number was called, I was ready,” Smiler said.
Since that game she’s been averaging around 17 minutes a game and is the first guard off the bench for Judkins.
“She should be pretty comfortable now,” Judkins said. “Sometimes the problem with Kaylee is she doesn’t realize what she needs to do to help the team. She tries to be too much of a team player. She needs to have some selfishness. I want her to shoot and I want her to score, because right now, percentage wise, she’s our best shooter. By her doing that, it can open things up a lot.”
Smiler said the adjustment to living in Utah was difficult at first, but she has a sister who lives in Provo and her two Kiwi teammates provided some help when she became homesick.
Having success on the court helps as well.
“I think our strength is our unity,” Smiler said. “We like each other on and off the court. When we work together we’re a machine. When we work together, nothing can stop us.”
Smiler’s contribution will be critical this week against Saint Mary’s on Thursday. The Gaels shocked No. 11 Gonzaga on Saturday 70-60, jumping out to an 18-4 lead and shooting lights out (14 of 21, 67 percent) from the 3-point line. Saint Mary’s is a streaky shooting team – The Gaels made 11 of 30 (37 percent) from distance against BYU in the first meeting.
“The scary thing is they really shoot the three ball,” Judkins said. “One game I watched from the preseason they shot 40 3-pointers. What we have to do is not give them open looks and make every shot be rushed. When we do that, they are still going to make some but hopefully not as many.”