LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – I'm not one of the skeptics who questions whether Russ Smith can thoroughly transform his game from score/score/score to pass/score/lead. He'll do that. The transition started more than a year ago.
But even I have work to give Smith all the credit he has earned.
I was talking to Smith about his play in the Las Vegas edition of the NBA Summer League. Check the numbers. He's leading the league in assists. Smith is averaging 7 per game.
Oops. Wrong answer.
"Actually it's closer to 8," Smith said, with a laugh. "I've surprised myself, too."
Actually, Smith is correct.
As Smith and his New Orleans Pelicans teammates prepare for their fourth Summer League game today at 4 p.m., Smith is indeed first in assists at 7.7 per game. That is considerably better than runner-up Ray McCallum (5.3). It's also a nice jump from the 4.7 Smith averaged at the University of Louisville last season. Get open. He will get you the basketball.
"The floor is more spaced and I'm playing with a great group of guys," Smith said. "They're veterans. They're knocking down shots. I see everybody so of course I try to get my teammates the ball."
It gets better. Smith's assists total is also more than the 7.0 that Elfrid Payton averaged while leading the Orlando venue of the Summer League last week.
That's important to Smith. Payton was selected 37 spots ahead of Smith, 10th overall, on Draft Night – June 26.
Smith didn't understand that then. He does not understand it today. Chances are that he will never understand that one.
You can try to explain it by reminding Smith that Payton is more than three inches taller. But Smith knows that you know Payton seemed to avoid him during the pre-draft workouts and that those three extra inches were not of much value to Payton when the two played last December.
"I don't have a chip on my shoulder," Smith said. "I don't have to prove anything. My game speaks for itself. Whoever I get matched up against, I have to show that.
“Draft night is over. Now everybody is on one level. Now it's just time to get to work. I have been trying to play as well as I can and just keep moving on.
"There's really nothing to prove because my game speaks for itself. Coach (Pitino) has helped me not calm down but see things for the way they are.
"I just get kind of frustrated when things should be obvious and people try to make it like it's not. I just felt like I outperformed a lot of my counterparts and I deserved that shot."
The shot is coming now. In fact, it's guaranteed. Smith has signed a two-year guaranteed contract with the Pelicans, an impressive display of confidence for a team to invest in a second-round draft pick. Smith said he has already forgotten about that first contract – and is concentrated earning the second contract.
"I'm about trying to reach optimum level," he said. "I'm going to work hard to try to be the optimum player and do whatever I can to stick around."
Smith did not celebrate by purchasing a new car or electronic toy. He took his mother and girlfriend out to dinner – and made a stroll through one of the casinos.
"If anything, I might have lost $100," Smith said.
The Summer League Tournament ends on Monday. Smith said that he has been spending time with his new teammates, including former Kentucky star Anthony Davis, who has been with the team in Las Vegas, even though he is not playing in games.
Smith said he will live in Louisville for the next two months until he departs for training camp in late September.
He can play pick-up ball with his former U of L teammates – or work on individual drills with his best friend, Peyton Siva, who is trying to find a new team after the Detroit Pistons declined to pick-up the second season of his contract.
"I couldn't be in a better place or better situation around better people," he said. "I'm very happy here. I'm going to get the opportunity to go against some of those other guys. So I'm trying to stay thankful and grateful."