Courtesy University of Louisville

Russ Smith eager to begin NBA career in New Orleans

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Overlooked as a high school player, Russ Smith was barely recruited before he caught the eye of the University of Louisville. He went on to become one of the most accomplished players in program history, helping lead the Cardinals to two straight Final Four appearances and the 2013 national championship.

As a late second-round NBA draft pick, the 6-foot, 160-pound point guard will begin his professional career in similarly low-key fashion, having been chosen 47th overall, despite a thicker college resume than virtually every other draftee. Entering Thursday’s draft, Smith wasn’t even confident that he would be selected. In fact, he stopped watching portions of ESPN’s television broadcast, before tuning in again a few picks into the second round.

“I just prepared for the worst,” Smith told CardinalAuthority.com of potentially not being picked.

However, at around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Smith learned that Philadelphia was officially drafting him, but trading him to the New Orleans Pelicans. In exchange, the Pelicans sent 2013 second-round pick Pierre Jackson to the 76ers. Smith will almost immediately get the chance to don a New Orleans uniform, with summer league practices beginning for the Pelicans on July 7.

“I’m just happy to have an opportunity to be a part of a program that wants to get better,” Smith told a group of Louisville media members late Thursday night, after he’d spoken to Pelicans GM Dell Demps. “I actually feel comfortable that they traded for me and want me to be a part of their program. That makes me feel a lot more comfortable and makes me even more ecstatic to get to work.”

“He’s a champion. He won a lot of games,” Demps said. “We’re excited to bring him in to the program. He’s a dynamic player. He’s a two-way player – that’s what we’re excited about. We’re looking forward to getting him in here and getting him with our group.”

Louisville compiled a 121-31 overall record during Smith’s career, sparked partly by the player’s outstanding individual defense. Smith finished with 257 career steals, tops all-time in Louisville program history.

He was a deep reserve as a Cardinals freshman, averaging only 2.2 points and 5.6 minutes, but as a sophomore he emerged as one of the NCAA’s most improved players. He was Louisville’s second-leading scorer in 2011-12 at 11.5 points per game, in just 21.5 minutes a night. That Cardinals club reached the 2012 Final Four, which was held at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Coincidentally, current Pelicans players Anthony Davis, Darius Miller and Jeff Withey also appeared in the ’12 Final Four (Davis and Miller helped lead Kentucky to victory in the national title game over Withey’s Kansas squad).

As a junior, Smith and Louisville made a repeat trip to the Final Four, winning in the championship round vs. a Michigan team that featured five future NBA draft picks. Smith was a consensus All-American for the first time as a senior, averaging 18.2 points and a career-best 4.6 assists. Louisville went 31-6 and captured first place in the brand-new American Athletic Conference. The Cardinals’ season ended in the Sweet 16 vs. in-state rival Kentucky.

Following the 2013-14 college season, Smith said he worked out for “12 or 13 teams,” but did not have a workout with New Orleans or Philadelphia.

“When I wasn’t picked (in the draft) by the teams I worked out for, I thought I was going to go undrafted,” Smith told CardinalAuthority.com. “I basically accepted it and was ready to move on and get ready for free agency.”

Smith noted that there were some guards he had hoped to match up against during his NBA workouts this month, but was disappointed to not be able to do so. During a May interview with the Boston Globe, Pitino warned that Smith was the type of player other guards would be wise to avoid during the pre-draft workout period.

“If you are a first-round draft choice and you are a guard and you’re at a workout camp and Russ Smith walks in, you’re telling your agent to get you the hell out of there,” Pitino told the Boston newspaper. “That’s the type of kid Russ is. If he comes walking through that door, you want to say immediately, ‘My hamstring’s bothering me.’ ”

Smith will have the chance to begin proving himself at the professional level on July 11 in Las Vegas, when the Pelicans open NBA Summer League game competition vs. the D-League Select team. New Orleans’ summer squad will play a minimum of five games from July 11-18.

“I just asked (the Pelicans), ‘When do I get started?’ ” Smith told CardinalAuthority.com. “Because all I need is an opportunity, and they’ve given me that. I took (this) as a great opportunity and a situation where I can immediately go to summer camp and get to work. As far as proving stuff again, the whole country knows what I’m capable of. Everyone knows about Russ Smith, everyone I’ve matched up against. There’s no secret to that. In these workouts, I didn’t get certain people I wanted to get. It’s the elephant in the room that nobody talks about and everyone knows that. When I get prepared, there is going to be no surprise. It’s been a rough two-month stretch, (but) I get selected by a team that loves me, traded for me. I’m just ready to go.”