Louisville's Russ Smith says he's still leaning neither one way nor the other in deciding whether to turn pro or return for a senior season of college basketball.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Most of the time, a college player with an NBA decision to make has the choice made for him by circumstance, and there's a clear consensus on what will be best.
For Russ Smith of the University of Louisville, the pros and cons (or is it pros and college?) line up in formation: either way, it would appear, he can win. It's not your typical stay-or-go scenario. Smith said this past weekend he was 50-50. He said again Thursday he's 50-50, and expects to make a decision after meeting with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino next week.
Pitino has said he'll support Smith if he wants to leave and the outlook looks favorable. He also has said he'll welcome Smith back with open arms, with the warning that he should return, "with a purpose, to become the best all-around player he can be."
Smith is not a projected first-round pick, and there's some debate over whether, because of his size, he would even be a first-rounder with another All-American season next year.
Still, he figures to be taken in the draft by someone, and his stock is high, having led the NCAA Tournament in scoring and been, by most accounts, the best player on the best team in college basketball last season.
If Smith decides to go pro, he'll get his chance to make a roster, and more of a chance than anyone ever likely gave him coming out of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens. He'll be a professional, living that dream that kids have.
But Smith also could return and win. By the end of the season, he was being viewed as a far more serious player than the "Russdiculous" image created for him. His ability to get to the line was no joke, and his relentless fearlessness was the real thing.
Smith made third-team All-American, which in itself was a joke, given that he led a team to a national title. But the novelty-act of his reputation may have hurt him. Ken Pomeroy's overall player rating had him at No. 1 in college basketball.
And Smith was, despite an off-night in the title game and less than his sharpest performance in the national semifinals, the most impressive player in the NCAA Tournament. He broke a tournament single-game record with eight steals in U of L's opening win, and led the tournament with 134 points in six games.
Here's a stat that will put Smith into some perspective for U of L fans. The school's all-time career leading scorers in NCAA tournament play: Milt Wagner is first with 224 points. Pervis Ellison and Darrell Griffith are tied for second at 203. Next? Russ Smith, 196 points.
Heady company. Smith can add to that legacy. He could rewrite several school record books. The notion that talented newcomers Chris Jones or Terry Rozier would knock Smith out of opportunities is far-fetched. Both are better shooters, but Smith, even as a marked man, was one of the top guards in college basketball as a junior. As a senior, he'd only figure to improve.
But is there money to be made from that improvement? And would it be worth delaying the payday for another season? And would it be worth the risk?
If there's one wild card hanging over all this, it's the risk of injury. Smith became physically ill when Kevin Ware was injured. He saw what happened to Nerlens Noel last season. Michael Bush is a constant reminder for U of L athletes.
If anything, that could nudge the decision in favor of riding his recent success on into the pro ranks.
During the NCAA Tournament, Pitino declared Smith ready for the NBA. The question is whether the NBA is ready for him. Pitino likened him to Allen Iverson.
"Truly, I've been coaching a long time, I'm baffled, just baffled, because it wasn't like he's a Johnny‑come‑lately. He carried us on his back to a Final Four last year," Pitino said of Smith's absence from some All-American teams. "Allen Iverson was so good at the pro level because it's tough in the pros because you really have a 16‑second shot clock, and now Allen always had the ball with five seconds to go and he had to create. And that's what Russ does. . . . I look at him and say the college game today is much more physical than the pros. When you watch the pros today, they (call fouls) right away, hand check or anything like that. And Russ is able to get to the foul line, get a shot off, make the play, turn around and guard. I'd have him in the top twelve in the draft because of the way his game translates to the next level.
Pitino has made that same case to NBA executives and scouts. Next week, he'll have the task of sitting down with Smith and surveying the lay of the NBA land.
It's a decision Smith hasn't made yet, and one he genuinely appears to be wrestling with.
But in this particular case, either way Smith goes, he figures to land in a good situation.