Russ Smith Q&A with CardChronicle.com
CardChronicle.com owner/author Mike Rutherford is one of the most prominent voices on the ultra-successful, Rick Pitino-led University of Louisville men's basketball program. Rutherford, who covered Russ Smith throughout the point guard's four-year career at Louisville, is a college basketball editor for SB Nation and the co-host of "The Two Man Game" on Louisville radio station ESPN 680 AM. Rutherford took time to respond to questions from Pelicans.com about Smith:
Pelicans.com: For Pelicans fans who may not be familiar with Russ Smith as a player, what are some of the primary things he will bring to an NBA team?
Rutherford: Excitement, definitely. Since he emerged as a key contributor at Louisville during his sophomore season, there hasn't been a more exciting player in college basketball than Russ Smith. Some of the time it was the "bad excitement" that he developed such a reputation for, but the good far outweighed the bad, as evidenced by Louisville's two Final Fours, one national championship and three conference tournament titles.
Russ' biggest asset in college was that he was impossible to keep out the lane. You may think "impossible" is being used hyperbolically here, but I legitimately cannot think of one instance where he made a concerted effort to get into the lane and didn't succeed. He's quick, he's shifty, he has a terrific floater and when he's on, he's also a reliable outside shooter.
The thing that Russ does that I'm surprised didn't get more attention during the draft process is defend. He's not a classic shutdown one-on-one defender, but he has tremendous instincts, which is why he's walking away from Louisville as the school's all-time leader in steals.
Pelicans.com: What is he like as a person, away from basketball?
Rutherford: He is hilarious. A lot of people give Russ the lion's share of the credit for Rick Pitino rediscovering his love for basketball and repeatedly saying things like "I'm having more fun now than I ever have in my career," and I think that's fair. He's going to say wild things and he's going to make you laugh, but the other important thing about Russ is that he's really, really intelligent. It gets lost in the shuffle a little bit because of his antics, but he's a very sharp guy.
Pelicans.com: In the majority of articles written about Smith at Louisville, there is mention of his popular nickname, "Russdiculous." Where did that originate and what does it mean?
Rutherford: When Russ came from basically nowhere and started to become a star, Louisville fans gave him all sorts of nicknames and made all sorts of plays off of his first name. Rick Pitino joined in with "Russdiculous," a nickname he apparently gave him one day during practice. According to Pitino, the nickname was based around the fact that Russ would do things in practice that were beyond ridiculous, so he had to go a step further and qualify them as "Russdiculous."
Pelicans.com: One common theme in feature stories on Smith seems to be that at every level of basketball, he has been underrated or overlooked, only to show that he's a better player than people had originally believed. What do you think are the reasons for that?
Rutherford: I've never been more wrong about a player than I was about Russ Smith. He was a shadow during his freshman season at Louisville, and on the rare occasion that he did see the floor, he showed nothing that would have led you to believe he'd eventually become a solid contributor, let alone a consensus All-American. There were rumors about him transferring to Manhattan after his freshman season, and I think pretty much everyone in the city of Louisville expected that he'd finish his college career somewhere else eventually.
The craziest thing about Russ is that it's still so hard to explain why he's so effective. I mean on the surface he's too small, he doesn't shoot the ball well enough and he makes bad decisions too often, but somehow, every thing he does works...and works incredibly well. It's almost like his will to succeed is so great that it overcomes all these other things that would break other players with similar skill sets. Maybe it's the Brooklyn in him.
Pelicans.com: From even a brief look at media coverage of Smith's career, it appears as though he has accomplished significantly more individually and team-wise than the vast majority of college players or recent NBA draftees. How frustrating has it been for him that he seems to consistently be rated lower as a draft prospect than other players who have comparably thin college resumes?
Rutherford: I think he's been very frustrated, and he's expressed as much in recent days. Smith referred to the past two months as the "toughest of his life" recently, and explained that a large part of that was seeing players that he knew he was better than shoot up the draft board ahead of him.
Russ was the leading scorer on a national championship team as a junior and a consensus first team All-American as a senior. You can understand why he'd be more than a little frustrated to see a guy like Zach Lavine -- who averaged 9.4 points and 1.8 assists on a decent UCLA team -- taken 34 picks ahead of him.
Pelicans.com: Smith's name was mentioned as a possibility in previous NBA drafts, but he ultimately decided to return to college. What was behind those decisions?
Rutherford: After Louisville won the national title in 2013, I think everyone (Russ included) thought he was headed to the league. But when the feedback about him being too small and being a good enough passer to play point started to roll in, I think it shocked Russ a little bit. He'd heard that he'd be a late second round pick at best, and so he returned to college to prove to everyone that he could do what they said he couldn't. He effectively accomplished that, and still wound up not hearing his called until the last 1/4 of the draft. Suffice it to say, he's headed to New Orleans with a large chip on his shoulder.
Pelicans.com: Four-year college players being chosen in the NBA draft are becoming increasingly rare. What are the biggest areas where Smith improved from his freshman year to his senior campaign?
Rutherford: Well Russ was pretty terrible as a freshman, so if I can get away with it, I'll just say "everywhere." In addition to pretty much every aspect of his game improving dramatically, Russ also grew a lot as a person in four years. He was still his "Russdiculous" self last season, but he was also an extremely effective captain for the Cardinals. He's never going to be a guy who screams in the huddle or anything, but he led by doing things like making sure every player was included in team activities and things of that nature.
The definitive story of Russ' senior season was him going into the Kentucky locker room after the last game of his career -- a game where he hadn't played particularly well at the end -- and personally congratulating his arch-rivals on their huge win. He'll be a character at the next level, but he'll also be a professional.
Pelicans.com: What's one thing even diehard Louisville basketball fans may not know about Russ Smith?
Rutherford: I think diehards know pretty much everything about Russ Smith, but my favorite recent story about Russ was his interaction with local reporter Rick Bozich.
Bozich traveled to Indianapolis to interview Russ after he had worked out for the Pacers, and he was using a camera that he'd never used before. The camera apparently didn't work during Smith's standard media session, so Bozich asked if Russ would mind answering a few questions for him afterward. Not only did Russ -- who spent last summer interning at a local television station -- stay and answer several more questions, but he fixed Bozich's camera for him.
Get ready for plenty of similar stories down your way.