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.
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