For Russ Smith, things certainly have not come easy. Unranked out of high school, many were shocked when the lead guard committed to Louisville. As a freshman at U of L, he played just five minutes per game. Two years later, he won a National Championship and had the chance to bounce to the League, but opted to return for his senior year.
“I felt that if you were a junior and you aren’t guaranteed a top-15 pick, you shouldn’t give up an education, especially a free one,” Smith said. “I want to do things after basketball off the court and I felt that it was important to go back and get an education.”
While the Cardinals did not repeat as national champions, returning to school still proved to be very beneficial for Russ. With Peyton Siva having graduated and doing his thing for the Pistons, it provided the opportunity for Smith to play point guard full time. Averages of 18 points and 5 assists don’t even begin to show the value that running an elite program provided.
“It benefitted me a lot,” he says. “I led my conference in assists per 40 minutes. I averaged 5 assists per game while keeping my scoring up, then I raised both my field goal percentage and three-point percentage. I lowered my turnovers, too. I think that’s really important when going to the next level.”
Making steps to get to the next level, Russ-Diculous headed out to Vegas to hone his skills with Joe Abunsassar and the staff at Impact Basketball. From the time he got off the plane in Sin City (Russ literally went straight from the airport to the gym), he made his presence felt with his explosiveness off of the dribble, something that has come to him lately and will only get better in the League.
“It’s something that I’ve had since my junior year of college,” the 23-year-old said of his crazy bursts to the tin. “In college, the lane is so congested and teams kind of made me their focal point, so every time I got in the lane, I wasn’t able to explode. Now when the lane is a little more spread out in the League, I can use my athleticism to finish at the rim.”
Not just an athlete, Smith showed that he has some serious potential running the pick-and-roll. He made the proper reads, threw pocket passes with both hands, and dragged the big man out on switches. It was some pretty impressive stuff for a guy who has a mere one year of experience playing the lead guard spot full-time, and he is grateful for Coach Pitino giving him the keys for his senior campaign.
While you can tell that Smith was proud of his team and individual accomplishments over the last two years, he has plenty of room for improvement. Though he shot 47 percent from the field and 39 percent from three as a senior, shot selection has been an issue at times throughout the NYC native’s career. Russ also openly admits that he’s going to have to work on his D if he hopes to put the clamps on guys like CP3 and Damian Lillard next season.
“If I had to say one thing, it would be defending the ball screen on every single possession,” he admitted. “Defensively, being able to get over ball screens and being able to take the consistent hits from the big fellas is what is going to take some time to get used to.”
Elaborating on areas for growth on the other end, he said, “I’m looking to work on decision making and making the right plays on the court every time. I’m working on not getting shot happy if I make a few shots in a row. I want to get smarter, get acclimated to the three point shot, and basically just reaching my goals.”
Whatever the plan for Smith is, it appears to be working. He straight up killed the Clippers’ group workout on Thursday and is constantly rising draft boards. The uber-quick guard is going to have to answer questions about his size (he is 6-1 in shoes, but just 160 pounds), but his ability to shoot and explode to the rack should get him selected earlier than most have him projected currently (mid-second round). Plus, the fact that he played for a Hall of Fame coach with NBA coaching experience doesn’t hurt.
“Coach P taught me pick and roll, defense and winning. Also, being humble,” responded Russ when asked about some of the more important things he learned under Pitino. “He taught me to just move on to the next play. I think that Coach does a great job with that, since he has been at the professional levels.”