Pelicans’ Russ Smith leads Vegas league in assists

by Jim Eichenhofer

LAS VEGAS – Summer league isn’t generally the time and place for old school, unselfish basketball, particularly with 200-plus hungry players trying to prove themselves in front of NBA scouts. That’s another factor making New Orleans Pelicans rookie Russ Smith a truly unique player to watch in Nevada.

Entering Wednesday’s tournament play, the second-round draft pick was leading the league in assists by a comfortable margin. Through three Pelicans games, Smith has totaled 23 assists, an average of 7.7 per game. His 10-assist performance Monday vs. San Antonio was one of only two double-digit assist games throughout the entire league (Sacramento’s Ray McCallum posted a 12-assist game and is averaging 5.3).

“I’m trying to set guys up in position to score and create shots,” Smith said after being informed of his place atop the assist leaders. “I think I’ve obviously shown I can get guys the ball and put them in positions where they feel comfortable. That was my goal coming in.”

Prior to his senior season at Louisville, one NBA draft website described Smith as “a loose cannon without point guard instincts,” but during his final college campaign, the 6-footer demonstrated his knack for running a team. He averaged 4.6 assists per game in 2013-14, No. 4 in the newly-created American Athletic Conference. Still, the New York City native heard some doubts regarding his ability to play point guard in the pros.

“At Louisville, I averaged about five assists a game my senior year and was a leader in my league in assists,” Smith said. “It doesn’t surprise me much that I can play the one (point guard), but I’m also not surprised that other people were skeptical about it.”

The summer Pelicans have benefited greatly from Smith’s court vision and knack for finding open teammates with pinpoint passes. It’s one of the reasons New Orleans (2-1) is shooting a red-hot 40.6 percent from three-point range. Pelicans guards Courtney Fells and Josh Carter are a combined 18-for-35 from beyond the arc.

“One of the things he’s doing very well is picking up what we’re trying to do offensively,” Pelicans summer head coach Bryan Gates said of Smith. “When he draws two guys, (teammates) are doing a good job of getting to the spots where they’re supposed to be. Russ knows that they’re there. He understands the flow of the game. It’s helping him out.”

After an opening-round bye, the seventh-seeded Pelicans will begin tournament play Thursday vs. the 23rd-seeded Charlotte Hornets (3 p.m. Central) and will have at least one more game after that. Over the remainder of summer league, Smith wants to reduce his turnovers – he’s averaging 5.0 a game, often the result of aggressive drives that launch him into the teeth of defenses – and tighten up his command of the Pelicans’ offense.

“Just being heady and steady, and pretty much generic,” Smith said of his objective the rest of the way. “Not try to do too much. Basically just take care of the ball. Making simple plays and doing everything I can to not turn the ball over, or put myself in a bad situation.”

Gates: “I want him to take more control of the game, but the point guard and quarterback positions, those are the toughest (for a rookie) to learn in sports. He’s our quarterback – he’s got to run the show. He’s learning.”