A few days had gone by since the NBA Development League’s eighth annual Elite Mini Camp concluded back on May 10.
Russ Smith, who spent 25 games with the Delaware 87ers last season, put on a performance throughout the two-day event where he displayed his ability to score the ball at a high level as well as get his teammates open. The scouting event designed to give D-League players a chance to crack the NBA scene surely would have rewarded one of its leading scorers with a brand new opportunity to continue their basketball career.
Except it didn’t.
“I thought I would get a phone call,” Smith said. “And my phone never rang.”
Instead, Smith — a 6-foot guard and Brooklyn native — was forced to look at other opportunities should he want to continue his basketball career.
“I might as well try something different, see if I can, you know, do what I do best,” Smith, the No. 47 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, told Basketball Insiders. “The year previous when I went to Summer League, I don’t think I got a fair chance. As somebody that wasn’t signed to a team, you gotta go through a lot of, like, BS, in the Summer League. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say annoying, but I just decided to come out here and try something different. To be able to score.”
By “here”, Smith means the Chinese National Basketball League, where he now suits up for Luoyang.
A former consensus first-team All-American with Louisville back in 2013-14, Smith has always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. When he followed his gut decision to forgo another shot at the Summer League to move halfway across the world, Smith’s motive was because he knew he would get the opportunity to do, as he says, “do best.”
Well, Smith certainly didn’t let his opportunity go to waste.
Following the end of the regular season, Smith led the league in scoring. According to him, that was his expectation when he made the commitment to play in China. However, what he didn’t expect was the gross magnitude in which he would wind up scoring points.
Smith averaged 61.2 points per game.
That’s right. Every night Smith stepped on the court he was looking to hang 60-plus on his opponents. This included 64 in his first game, a four-game stretch of scoring 70-plus points and ultimately his 81-point performance.
No player in the history of the NBL has ever averaged more than 45 points per game.
Right from the jump, Smith started getting buckets for Luoyang. However, his team wasn’t faring as well as he was. Smith’s squad started the season 1-3, despite his scoring barrages. But after noticing how defenses started keying in on the spectacular scorer, Smith made his own adjustments, and the team’s success followed suit.
“I started doing things a lot differently,” Smith said after recognizing defensive adjustments. “I started cutting a lot more, moving with the ball a lot more, breaking out in transition a lot, getting easy ones, jump-stopping, a lot of pull-ups. There’s no scouting report for that.
“Because of that, my teammates started picking up a lot of slack. They started getting easy opportunities, getting open looks. We started off the season 1-3, but then after that everything just started really moving well. We became a top-3 team in our league.”
Clearly Luoyang’s most dangerous scorer, Smith wanted to show the league — and the rest of the basketball world — that he was more than a one-trick pony. He figures that by showing he can do more than just score at will, maybe more doors for different opportunities will open in the future.
“I averaged 61 and a half, so I felt like what I was doing out here, regardless, they’re gonna have to start taking me seriously as a scoring guard, anywhere I go,” Smith said. “That’s really the impression I wanted to leave, and then at the same time, I was top-three in assists, and I lead the league in steals.”
Now, when a player takes the court each night with the ability to, for lack of a better word, embarrass the opponent, some guys won’t take that so lightly. Unlike playing ball back over in the states, life in the NBL is a bit more rough and tumble, according to Smith. There are fewer technicals dished out, and maybe some contact that you wouldn’t get away with in the NBA is accepted over there. Because of that, Smith has a little more on his mind than just pulling up to hit a jumper when he has the ball. To him, that’s been one of the biggest adjustments he’s had to make since taking ahold of this latest opportunity.
“Sometimes when I’m shooting shots, I’m focused on making it,” Smith said. “But when you see somebody jump that close to you and you’re not used to it, you kinda gotta fade back a little or brace yourself coming down. So, you can’t even put all of your focus into making shots, you gotta watch everything because they might jump under you.”
Smith does concede that there are some dirty players back stateside as well, but the abundance in the NBL has made him play with a bit more caution than he originally anticipated. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves and so do the results. Luoyang finished the regular season 18-8, the third best record in the league.
After a season that would be considered wildly successful from Smith’s standpoint, new doors have opened for him. Maybe not the ones he would have envisioned for himself back in May, but positive endeavors nonetheless. Next season, Smith will move up to China’s highest league, the Chinese Basketball Association, where he’ll play for Fujian. Former NBA players Al Harrington, Sebastian Telfair, and J.J. Hickson all once suited up for Fujian. Most recently, Dwight Buycks, who just inked a deal to play for the Detroit Pistons next season, also played with the same CBA club.
So, Smith is moving himself up in the ranks of Chinese basketball. Just like he did in the NBL this past season, he’s looking to get buckets next year all the same.
“I want to assert myself in a situation to show people, ‘Alright he can really score the ball,’” Smith said. “‘He’s done it here, he’s done it here.’ Now, I’m gonna try [to] have some momentum.”
For as much success as Smith has had this summer in China, however, there’s still the nagging itch he has about not being in the NBA. Sure, Smith has had stints in the league. After being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Smith managed to appear on an NBA court 27 times from 2014-16, most notably with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite his fleeting time spent in the league, Smith feels like he never got a fair shake in terms of being able to contribute what he does best on the basketball court: Score the ball.
“There’s point guards and guards in the league that can’t create shots for others, and they need a ball-screen,” Smith said. “Or that they can’t push the ball, they’re not fast enough. And it sucks because I feel like I’m all of those things, but they’d rather have those guys because they’re easier to manage.”
Smith takes it one step further, even. To him, there’s no way he can look at every NBA roster and believe every player on that team is better than him. In order for him to have the drive he needs to turn his dreams into reality, he needs to think that way.
“I really think it’s BS that I’m not on an NBA roster, to say the least,” Smith said. “There’s no way that I can look 30 teams in the NBA, in the states, and I can go, ‘All 13 guys on this roster is better than me.’ I can’t believe that.”
In the meantime, the Brooklyn native with a colorful personality will continue to bide his time in China doing what he does best and getting buckets. Smith mentioned that he can assimilate just fine to the Chinese culture. Across the Pacific, certain norms like a Pizza Hut or Papa John’s are treated as fine cuisine. As Smith said, “You can’t go wrong going there, out here.”
And when he isn’t dropping 81-point games and eating at altered versions of American pizza joints, Smith will just relax at his place and watch movies on his laptop or play cards with his teammates, patiently waiting for the next time he can step on the court.
Life halfway across the world has been kind to Smith so far, but to the point guard who’s been lighting up the scoreboards, coming back home to play in the NBA is never too far from his train of thought.
“I would love to,” Smith said. “I’m from the states, and I’m an American at the end of the day. That’s the best league in America, so when I’m doing what I’m doing over here, I think it’s only right to bring me back to the crib. There’s no other way to put it.”
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