Russ Smith taking return seriously
Louisville guard back for senior year to prove Russdiculous is a good thing
Russ Smith, equipped with headphones and clutching the bowl-like curve of a parabolic microphone, roamed the sidelines of the University of Louisville's recent football game against Florida International.
The charismatic shooting guard, who was the leading scorer on the Cardinals' 2013 national championship basketball team and third-team All-America, was working an internship with a local television station as part of his communication-major requirements.
But Louisville football players who knew him, and even some fans who recognized him from the stands, acted as though they were waiting for the hidden cameras and Ashton Kutcher to emerge during the 72-0 laugher.
Because if Russ Smith was involved, it had to be some type of joke.
"They were joking, saying things like, I'm crazy, and why did I keep doing stuff like this, and Russ is messing around," said Smith, who it seems can't escape being Russdiculous even when he tries.
Smith's lovable personality and rise from an unknown, barely recruited little guy to the big man on campus have managed to overshadow his tremendous skills on the court. This season, he's fighting to be viewed as a serious ballplayer with serious stakes.
Smith's potential NBA career could be riding on it.
"I just had that conversation with him the other day," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "I said, 'Russ, you came back to be a pro, if you came back to be Russdiculous again, then you may carry us to another Final Four, but it's not going to help you get to the pros.' "
Pitino initially coined the nickname "Russdiculous" -- and for a short time also owned a horse by the same name, in honor of Smith -- as a term of endearment that summed up Smith's penchant for inexplicable acts, both good and bad.
Just the other day, Pitino said, he received a text from Smith at 12:45 a.m. When Pitino asked why he was sending texts so late, Smith, a Brooklyn native, replied, "New Yorkers don't go to bed that early. Are you getting old coach?"
"He just makes me laugh constantly," said Pitino, who added that Smith has a "lovable personality" and "he knows when he messes up."
That included the first time he lit into Smith for making a recurring mistake -- and, after Pitino's tirade, Smith asked to "hug it out."
That also included a penchant to be so focused on scoring that, Pitino said, Smith viewed a 1-on-3 break as "advantage Russ."
I don't know how you can't take him seriously considering he won a national title last year and is going to be preseason Player of the Year in our league. He's pretty darn good." -- Memphis coach Josh Pastner
But that same attitude in his sophomore year had Smith challenging Kentucky center Anthony Davis in the paint. Smith scored 30 points off the bench against the Wildcats in the regular-season matchup, when no other Louisville player scored double figures.
"I don't know how you can't take him seriously considering he won a national title last year and is going to be preseason Player of the Year in our league (American Athletic Conference)," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "He's pretty darn good."
Smith can deliver scoring in bulk, averaging 18.7 points and 2.9 assists last season. He's also averaged 85 steals the past two seasons and needs just 72 to surpass Peyton Siva as the school's all-time leader.
During the Cardinals' run to the Final Four last season, Smith elevated his game, averaging 26 points while shooting 54 percent from the field in the first four NCAA tournament games. It was his way of thumbing his nose at detractors.
"I like to be the one to show people how futile their lists are or how futile their thoughts may be and then I'll move on from it," Smith said. "I'll look at something that says, 'Russ is not efficient.' Oh really?"
Before the confetti had completely dropped from the Georgia Dome rafters after the Cardinals captured the title, Russ Smith Sr. declared his son would skip his senior season and enter the NBA draft.
That was the beginning of a frustrating month. Smith heard his game being shredded, but what he didn't hear was of many NBA teams being interested in drafting him.
They looked at his 41.4 field goal percentage, his 2.7 turnovers per game and the fact that his smallish, 6-foot-1, 165-pound frame won't get to the free throw line as much in the league as he does in college.
"He's an undersized 2-guard. There's nothing he can do about his size, but his shot selection is atrocious," one NBA executive said. "He's a volume shooter and he's not going to be a guy who will get that many shots in our league. There was one dude that was allowed to shoot that many times in our league and he's going to be in the Hall of Fame -- that's A.I. (Allen Iverson.)"
The message was that for Smith to make the NBA, he needed to be more efficient, and to show he could be an efficient point guard.
"It was a very miserable process for me, very frustrating," said Smith, who began studying film of similarly sized guards in the pros like Kemba Walker, D.J. Augustin and Eric Bledsoe for comparison.
"They're definitely more poised than me. And can I be poised? Yes. Was I just as efficient or more efficient? Yes," Smith said. "But there are things the GM wants to see that puts checks in your pocket. It's not a matter of what I feel or my dad feels or what coach or my teammates feels, it's a matter of what they want to see in me."
The changes started as soon as the season ended for Smith. For a player who always enjoyed interacting with fans -- his impromptu Twitter chats as a freshman would eventually lead to Pitino banning the entire team from posting in-season -- he sought anonymity after the semester ended. Instead of continuing to revel in a city-wide celebration, Smith retreated with his girlfriend to her home in West Lafayette, Ind.
He returned to campus focused on maturing into the co-captain role alongside senior Luke Hancock, who was the 2013 Final Four's Most Outstanding Player -- a role Pitino has entrusted Smith to uphold.
Louisville senior center Stephan Van Treese said during offseason conditioning Smith has filled a leadership void left by Peyton Siva.
"We know he's one of the floor generals we have this year, we follow him into battle. Now he's basically the new Peyton," Van Treese said. "He tells us what to do on and off the court. It's weird to see Russ in that role, but he's really matured. He's kind of become a new person."
For Smith, it'd be Russdiculous to stay the same.