Russ Smith evolving, but NBA execs remain skeptical
Last April, Russ Smith basked in a moment every college player dreams about. Louisville had just won a national championship and Smith -- a junior guard who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region and dropped 21 points on Wichita State in the Final Four -- was an integral part of it. Standing on the confetti-covered Georgia Dome floor, Smith's future looked bright.
Then his father, Russ Smith Sr., announced that Smith was headed to the NBA.
Then the narrative changed. Quickly.
Smith's NBA potential became a popular topic, and the analysis wasn't pretty. Too small, some scouts said. Too erratic of a shooter. Smith had the frame (6-foot, 165 pounds) of a point guard but the skills and mentality of a two-guard.
Ultimately, Smith decided to return to Louisville, a decision with which everyone agreed.
"The pros want to see a different Russ," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said last April. "They want to see 10 more pounds of muscle. They want to see better shot selection, a higher assist-turnover ratio."
As a senior, Smith has submitted his most complete season. He is shooting 46.8 percent from the field, up from 41.4 percent last season. He is making 39.6 percent of his three-pointers, up from 32.8 last season. His assists are up (4.5 per game) while his turnovers have remained steady, at 2.7. On Wednesday, Smith posted 26 points (including 6-of-6 from three-point range), six rebounds and five assists in a road win over SMU.
His draft stock, however, has not improved much. Three league executives who were asked about Smith told SI.com that they don't see him as much more than a second-round pick.
"He's a very good college player," a Western Conference executive said. "But when I watch him, I don't see a guy who makes his teammates better. It's all about him getting shots and scoring."
Said an Eastern Conference executive: "There are certain things that I really like about him. I really like how competitive he is. I like how he gets to the basket, how he can get any shot he wants. But he's a combo guard. The guys that are small combo guards that make it work -- Nate Robinson, for example -- are few and far between. Nate is far more athletic than Russ. It takes a really special guy to be a small spark plug off the bench, and I don't see it in him.
"He doesn't take great shots. I don't know any coach in the NBA that will allow him to take those shots."
Point guard Chris Jones, a junior college transfer, has helped offset the loss of Peyton Siva this season, keeping Louisville among the top teams in the country. However, Jones' presence has limited Smith's opportunities to showcase an ability to be a lead guard. Further complicating Smith's NBA future is that the second round is expected to be loaded with point guard prospects. Arizona State's Jahii Carson, UConn's Shabazz Napier, Michigan State's Keith Appling, UMass' Chaz Williams and Xavier's Semaj Christon are among the playmakers Smith will likely have to compete with in June.
"The thing about Russ is that he's a specialist," ESPN draft analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla said. "He's a punt returner. He's a game breaker. He has great end-to-end speed. With a second unit, he can go and get you 8-10 points. I don't think he is a lock to make it, but he has an unusual skill set.
"Rick has coached him expertly at the college level. There, you have to let him play wild. For every bad shot or turnover, he makes four or five plays to make up for the bad ones. But that part of his game is not going to translate to the league."
Smith's scoring ability ensures that some team will take a chance on him, either with a second-round pick or as an undrafted free agent. Whether he makes it will depend on his development into the type of balanced, complete player that teams are seeking.