Russ Smith an entertaining player to watch in Las Vegas

by Jim Eichenhofer

Tickets for the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas are about as affordable as it gets in sports, with $25 covering a general-admission pass that allows spectators to watch a whopping seven games in one day. From the sound of it, basketball fans who decide to check out second-round draft pick Russ Smith and the New Orleans Pelicans may be even more assured of getting their money’s worth.

“One thing Russ will be… he’ll be fun to watch,” Pelicans assistant coach Bryan Gates said Tuesday, after Smith’s second practice with the summer league team.

The 6-foot guard from the University of Louisville was one of the nation’s most entertaining players while leading the Cardinals to a national title in 2013, as well as a Final Four trip to New Orleans in 2012. Longtime Louisville coach Rick Pitino dubbed Smith “Russdiculous,” in an attempt to describe the unique and unpredictable nature of the Brooklyn native’s game.

Smith’s on-court exploits apparently left quite an impression on the Pelicans’ coaching staff. Gates remembered the group watching the ’13 NCAA championship on TV in a hotel room in Los Angeles, marveling at the daring of the Cardinals’ undersized backcourt duo of Smith and Peyton Siva. Siva is now a second-year Detroit Pistons guard.

“We were like, ‘Man, who is this guy?’ ” Gates said of Smith. “You just enjoyed watching him play. From a coaching standpoint, we don’t get to watch much college basketball (due to the NBA schedule). When you see him, you fall in love with him.”

Although Smith’s explosiveness on offense drew much of the attention from NCAA fans and media members, the Pelicans believe he can be a disruptive defender, able to pick up opposing point guards in the backcourt and harass them all over the floor.

“Everyone needs to kind of get off (focusing on) the offensive end,” Gates said. “Defensively is where he’s going to be fun to watch. What he brings, his defense is being able to pick up fullcourt and change the complexity of the game. (Smith could be used in a situation such as it’s) a Wednesday night back-to-back in Detroit, let Russ run wild in the middle of the third quarter and pick up Brandon Jennings or point guards fullcourt and let him change the game a little bit.”

“I think I can help defensively, to do whatever I can to compete defensively,” Smith said.

A bigger adjustment from college will likely be in the Pelicans’ offensive attack, where Smith may play almost exclusively at point guard, instead of splitting time between the guard positions as he sometimes did at Louisville. Smith averaged over 18 points per game in each of the past two seasons, but will be running a New Orleans attack that features numerous proven NBA scorers.

“I know at Louisville last year they asked him to score a lot,” Gates said. “Now he needs to make that transition to he might not need to shoot it 14, 15 or 16 times. He might need to have six or seven assists in a summer league game. He needs to learn the reads and learn our language. If anyone’s going to have the most thrown at him, it will be Russ.”

“Just to be efficient, just to learn under Coach Monty (Williams) and do what he’s kind of been preaching in practice,” Smith said of his short-term objectives. “Try to be more efficient with the basketball and obviously get others involved, play defense, contain my man and win games.”

Smith understands the step up in competition is significant, something Gates illustrated this week by recalling how 2013-14 fill-in starting point guard Brian Roberts once encountered a stretch featuring matchups vs. Portland’s Damian Lillard, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, the Clippers’ Chris Paul and San Antonio’s Tony Parker. Roberts had been unexpectedly elevated to starter after Jrue Holiday’s season-ending injury.

“Welcome to the West and point guards in the NBA,” a grinning Gates said. “Obviously we’re not looking at Russ to be our starter next year, but you’ve got to be able to do that (be ready whenever you’re called upon). You’ve got to be able to fill those shoes.”