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Smith Wants Chance to Play, Not Lottery Status

Louisville guard Russ Smith truly does not care when he’s drafted, as long as he gets a chance to contribute.

Joel Brigham

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A year ago, when Louisville guard Russ Smith was coming off an NCAA national championship, the time looked about as ripe as it could have ever been for him to declare for the NBA draft. He was (and still is) rather undersized to play point guard at the NBA level, but riding high after a great tournament and college season, it might have been wise for him to enter his name into the draft pool.

Instead, Smith decided to stay in school for another year, bucking the expectation that he’d turn pro last spring.

“I could have left after the championship, but I knew I wasn’t ready,” Smith told Basketball Insiders at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine. “I didn’t understand the game the way I do now. This year, we (Louisville) really overachieved. We had all new guys with all new roles, and we still managed to go out and have a winning season, win our conference and go to the Sweet 16.”

Of course, NBA teams are much more concerned with individual success than team success at the college level, but Smith actually made some pretty major individual strides during his senior season at Louisville, too. He averaged 18.2 points, 4.6 assists and two steals while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from three-point range. The year before, Smith had averaged 18.7 points and just 2.9 assists, while struggling from the field (41.4 percent) and three (32.8 percent).

“I also overachieved myself in leading a bunch of younger guys, getting my assist-to-turnover ratio up and leading the conference in per-40-minutes in assists,” Smith said. “I did all that, and I raised my three-point field goal percentage, so I had a great year.”

So is that enough to get him drafted in the first round? Probably not. Smith reportedly measured a 6’1 and 165 lbs. in April of 2013 before ultimately pulling back out of the daft. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino lauded the decision, admitting that NBA teams would like to see not only another year of seasoning, but about 10 more pounds of muscle.

After the combine, it appears as though Smith has gone the other direction; he officially weighed in at 160 lbs. and measured just a shade under 6’1 in tennis shoes.

Despite all this, Smith truly does not seem to care whether he’s selected in the first round.

“It’s not about where I get picked,” Smith said. “I’m not out here to try and make me lottery. It’s not to say, ‘Take me first!’ It’s not about that. I want to end up in a situation where I can contribute and do something to help the team. It doesn’t matter where I go, numbers-wise. I just want to go to a situation where I can play.”

For a mature kid like Smith, that seems like a reasonable expectation. He doesn’t have his heart set on the first round, but fully expects to be selected by a team looking for immediate help rather than a project that they can develop slowly. His combine experience was meant to showcase his abilities for whatever team that might be.

“I’m just trying to make a name for myself,” Smith said. “I’m pretty fast, quick, can jump, but a lot of guys can jump and are fast, so I feel like my defense and prolific scoring and my execution separate me.”

It’s a humbling experience passing up on NBA dreams following a national championship, only to have that momentum slowed somewhat the following season. Still, Smith looks as though he’ll be drafted next month, even if he has to wait until the second round in order to hear his name.

He hopes, though, that he can pay off huge for whichever team takes the risk on him.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft

After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.

Ben Nadeau

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Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.

Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?

For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.

At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.

Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…

As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.

But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.

We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.

…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide

Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?

After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.

The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.

The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out

Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.

Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.

In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.

Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.

While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.

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VIDEO: 2018 NBA Draft Winners

Basketball Insiders Benny Nadeau and Moke Hamilton break down the 2018 NBA Draft, including the teams and players that may have done better than expected.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Benny Nadeau and Moke Hamilton break down the 2018 NBA Draft, including the teams and players that may have done better than expected.

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Insiders Video

VIDEO: 2018 NBA Draft Losers

Basketball Insiders Benny Nadeau and Moke Hamilton break down the 2018 NBA Draft, including the teams and players that may not have done as well as expected.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Benny Nadeau and Moke Hamilton break down the 2018 NBA Draft, including the teams and players that may not have done as well as expected.

Continue Reading
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