Louisville's Russ Smith learns to pass on shots -- and to teammates

Tuesday January 28th, 2014

Russ Smith has always been a prolific scorer, but he has focused this season on improving his passing.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

How is this for a sign of a great college basketball season -- halfway through, the Wooden Award field isn't narrowing, it's getting bigger! Doug McDermott still has a very comfortable lead ahead of the pack, but the field of contenders who could make things interesting with late-season runs is getting so broad we can't fit all the worthy candidates in. So here, in all its imperfect and arguable glory, is Week 9 of Wooden Watch:

Spotlight On: Russ Smith, Louisville

When his players need help, Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows how to deliver a clutch assist. Two years ago Pitino helped Peyton Siva's decision-making by showing the point guard tapes of Steve Nash probing the lane after pick-and-rolls. Last year he showed Siva clips of himself shooting on a split screen next to the textbook jump shooter Ray Allen, which helped Siva correct his form. When it came time to help senior guard Russ Smith improve his shot selection this offseason, Pitino turned once again to the videotape. The exercise was simple, says Smith. Pitino showed Smith clips of him taking contested shots that clanged off the rim and wide open ones that swished through the net. "His basic message was, if you think it's a bad shot, it probably is," says Smith.

Smith, affectionately nicknamed "Russdiculous" by Pitino a few years ago in part because of his questionable shot selection, is still guilty of the occasional ill-advised launch, but his stats this season show a player who has become admirably picky about when to shoot and when to pass. That's especially true in conference play: Through seven games, Smith has averaged 20.1 points, 4.6 assists and 3.9 rebounds while making 61 percent of his three-pointers. Overall, he has improved his field goal shooting from 41 percent to 45 percent and his three-point shooting from 33 percent to nearly 40 percent.

Smith's improved shot selection has dovetailed nicely with his other self-improvement goal -- getting his teammates more involved. Smith says he sees the game differently now. "Rather than take the other team one-on-five when I'm going off the dribble, I'll think, if I take this shot, I'm risking somebody else not getting a good shot," he says. "Instead of taking this step-back or this floater or trying to get fouled, I just know somebody is open. Yet I still think my way through stuff instead of just reacting. Sometimes I'll come off a screen or I'll be dribbling and I'll be in the middle of a thought, and somebody will just smack the ball out of my hand."

Turnovers have been a problem. In conference play, Smith has been averaging more than four a game, a trend he finds "extremely frustrating." But, he adds, "Most of those turnovers are on me -- I might be overdribbling. Or it might just be a pass that I shouldn't have thrown. I have an idea where everybody's at. I just have to get the ball there."

Smith says transitioning from a scorer to a distributor this late in his career has been tougher than he imagined. "It's almost like on your math homework you're doing multiplication for three years, and then the last semester you find out you were supposed to be doing division," he says.

His mental challenges may be greater, but his physical challenges are fewer, as he has cut down on his foul-generating and body-sacrificing forays to the basket. "I was in the ER every day last year," says Smith, who is making 5.6 trips to the line this year compared to the 6.9 he made last year. "I was always getting treatment, I was always in the cold tub. I told myself before the season that I wouldn't put that pressure on my body again, going in with all the trees and stuff. Last year I kind of had to do it to generate offense. This year instead of generating fouls, I generate open opportunities for other guys. I think that's a win-win for everybody."

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

McDermott's 14 points in a 76-63 win over Georgetown on Saturday marked his lowest point total since he mustered seven points in a loss to George Washington way back on Dec. 1. But it was enough to push his career total to 2,702, making him just the 21st player in D-I history to breach the 2,700-point mark. A fact often lost in McDermott's ever-efficient flurry of points: he's pretty good at rebounding, too. He needs just 12 boards to make it 1,000 for his career. McDermott through 20: 24.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 49.4 percent shooting from field and 43 percent from the three.

2: Jabari Parker, Duke

Three games in six days, including road games at Miami and Pitt, made for a busy week for the Blue Devils. They didn't fail any test, and neither did Parker, who notched a double-double in each contest, including 17 points and a season-high 15 rebounds against the Hurricanes, and 21 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday against a Pittsburgh team eager to validate its No. 18 ranking with a signature win. (The double at Pitt was Parker's 12th of the season, a new Duke freshman record.) Parker's outside shot is still erratic (he was 2-of-10 for the week), but he is finding plenty of other places to generate offense, including the free throw line, where he was 20-of-24 for the week. Parker through 21: 18.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 46.5 percent shooting from the field.

3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

Smart has shown us he can be many things: brilliant, petulant, dominant, careless, resilient and maddeningly theatrical. This week we saw it all. Smart's performance in the Cowboys' 81-75 home win over West Virginia on Saturday was miserable, both statistically -- four points, five fouls -- and behaviorally. Frustrated by the Mountaineers' intense physicality, Smart kicked a chair at one point and disappeared behind the bleachers in another. After the game he tweeted out an apology promising to never leave "my team hanging" again. At Oklahoma on Monday he got into foul trouble early but responded well, scoring 16 of his 22 points in the second half. Still, Smart's early foul trouble cost his team. With Smart and Le'Bryan Nash on the bench for most of the first half, the Sooners built a solid lead the Cowboys couldn't overcome. Smart through 20: 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.5 steals a game.

4. Julius Randle, Kentucky

It was inevitable that some people, especially those who view the college season as one long pre-draft workout, would start to pick apart Randle's game and physique. His arms are short! He can't hit the three! He doesn't protect the rim! He could finish better! He struggles against length! He doesn't steal the ball! Yet despite these onerous shortcomings, the freshman is still producing for the Wildcats. In two wins this week, against Texas A&M and Georgia, he averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Short arms and all, Randle remains impressive. Randle through 19: 16.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 54 percent shooting.

5. Gary Harris, Michigan State

Tom Izzo said it after Sparty's 80-75 loss to Michigan in East Lansing on Saturday, which happened despite Harris's 27 points, five rebounds, three steals and relentless flypaper defense on Wolverine star guard Nik Stauskas: "If Harris isn't the best player in the league on both ends of the floor then God bless whoever it is." It's hard to argue with Izzo. In conference play Harris leads the Big Ten in both scoring (19.9 ppg) and steals (3.1 spg) (He also has the lead in overall scoring with 18.8 ppg.) It's a heavy load Harris carries -- starters Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are on the bench because of injuries, and Keith Appling is playing through back pain and a lingering right wrist injury that is so bad he can't really shoot. In the last three games, including a 71-66 win over Indiana last Tuesday, Harris averaged 24.6 points and 3.3 steals. Harris through 17: (MSU has played 20): 18.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.2 steals.

6. Nick Johnson, Arizona

Little was going right for Arizona offensively Sunday night. Utah, desperate for a signature road win, was deploying a lot of defensive looks to stay in the game deep into the second half. Once again, Johnson bailed his team out, scoring 22 points -- including eight during a critical 14-2 run late in the second half -- in the Wildcats' eventual 65-56 win, which took the Wildcats' win streak to 20, a school record. Oh yeah, he was pretty good against Colorado three nights earlier, delivering 18 points, three rebounds and three assists in a 69-57 win. Johnson through 20: 16.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 79 percent from the line.

7. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

This week Napier put together his best back-to-back duet of games yet this season, and that doesn't include his 30 points in the 76-64 loss to Louisville on Jan. 18. Napier carried the Huskies in a 90-66 blowout win over Temple, in which he had 27 points (including five threes), seven rebounds and six assists. And in a surprisingly tough game at Rutgers, he rallied from a 2-for-11 shooting start to hit five of his finals seven shots (and 10-of-11 free throws) for 26 points, three rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals. Of all the above categories, the only one Bazz doesn't lead his team in is blocks, though at 6-foot-1, he still averages one every two games. Napier through 20: 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 44 percemt shooting from the three.

8. Nik Stauskas, Michigan

This is a tough field to break into, but Stauskas did it this week after confounding three straight top 10 teams with his splendidly diversified offense. In wins against No. 3 Wisconsin last Saturday and No. 10 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State this week, Stauskas averaged 22.6 points and shot 50 percemt from the three while dishing out 4.3 assists. (His 4.7 assists in Big Ten play, by the way, make him third in the conference; not bad for a shooting guard.) On Saturday in East Lansing he had 19 points, including five of six threes despite tough D from Gary Harris, and a bunch of assists, including one that never made it into the box score. With his team trailing by two with about four minutes to go, Michigan coach John Beilein got into a heated exchange with referee Terry Wyman. Stauskas grabbed Beilein by the shoulders and pushed him to the sideline, thereby warding off a technical Michigan couldn't afford. With big man Mitch McGary out for the season, Stauskas is the biggest reason the Wolverines remain undefeated in the most treacherous conference in the land. Stauskas for the season: 18.5 points; 3.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 50 percent shooting.

9. Russ Smith, Louisville

Smith was solid in his one game this week, delivering 12 points, six assists and three rebounds in an 86-47 blowout at South Florida on Wednesday. But his most clutch move happened two nights later, when he was out of uniform and attending basketball homecoming at Louisville's DuPont Manual High School. (A friend was helping coach the visiting Eastern boys team.) According the Louisville Courier-Journal, when Tonysha Curry, who plays on the Manual freshman team, realized she was without an escort for the homecoming festivities, she approached Smith and asked him if he'd step in. Smith not only did it, he told the C-J that being asked "made my day." With a huge game against No. 13 Cincinnati looming this week, Smith is averaging 18.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.9 steals.

10. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Syracuse had only one game this week, but it was a Fair classic. In a zone-fest against Miami, he had 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes -- which brings up one of many things that go unappreciated about the Orange's headband accessorized senior: He rarely gets into foul trouble. This season he has reached four fouls just twice; the last time he did it was in mid-December against old foe St. John's. The guy is consistency and calm personified. Fair through 19: 16.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals.

In the wings: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State; Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh; Chaz Williams, UMass; Kyle Anderson, UCLA; Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico; Casey Prather, Florida; Xavier Thames, San Diego State; Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

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