CRAWFORD | First NBA season leaves Russ Smith a little wiser, no - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | First NBA season leaves Russ Smith a little wiser, no less confident

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Russ Smith greets campers at his Camp of Champions with Peyton Siva at Collegiate School. (WDRB photo). Russ Smith greets campers at his Camp of Champions with Peyton Siva at Collegiate School. (WDRB photo).
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Something seems right about Russ Smith standing in a gymnasium, kids everywhere, games going on all around him, shots flying, chaos winning.

That, of course, is his game. Chaos is his work address. But Smith said Monday during his annual Camp of Champions with former University of Louisville teammate Peyton Siva at Louisville Collegiate School that much of his first NBA season was spent trying to find order amid the frenetic pace.

There was very little settled during Smith's rookie season. He was drafted by Philadelphia, then traded to New Orleans. He had a strong summer camp, and barely had gotten himself settled before he was traded to Memphis. He was assigned to the Developmental League six times — three stints with Fort Wayne and three with Iowa.

In the midst of all of it, Smith said he started to learn his way around. He finished ranked ninth in the D-League in steals per game at 1.9, and 10th in usage percentage, used on 26.7 percent of his teams' possessions.

“It was fun,” Smith said. “I just tried to stay as ready as possible. The great thing about this year is that I was everywhere.”

Think about this schedule. On Dec. 5, he was assigned by the Pelicans to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Three days later, he was recalled by New Orleans. Three days later, he was sent back to the Mad Ants. Nine days later, he was recalled from Fort Wayne. He spent three weeks with the NBA club, then was sent back on Jan. 9.

Three days after that, he was in a layup line, they pulled him out and told him he'd been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. Then it was the same drill all over again, only this time he was shuttling between Iowa and wherever the Grizzlies were playing.

“At one point, the only time I played was just getting off an airplane that day, coming from Sioux Falls or Maine, and that was the only time I played,” Smith said.

But there were a few chances to play with his NBA affiliate on adequate rest. The most memorable was the last game of the regular season. On March 13, at Golden State, Smith got to play almost an entire quarter. He went 5-of-8 from the field, 5-of-5 from the line dished out four assists, grabbed two rebounds and a steal in 10 minutes of action in a four-point loss to the eventual Western Conference champion Warriors.

“That gave me a lot of confidence moving forward,” Smith said. “The whole thing was a great learning experience. . . . Then we (the Grizzlies) made the playoffs, so to just be in a playoff atmosphere and to be around some vets like Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol. It was a great experience.”

He's still Russ. He still has a hundred things going on at once. He has projects in New York and Louisville. His father, who has some background in acting, is working on a movie about him, and is seeking funding for it.

But in some ways, Smith says, he has settled. He has become more serious about the game. He knows a little bit about how it works now. He remembers at New Orleans seeing a lane to the basket and scoring against a veteran, and hearing the whistle blow.

“He had no position. I thought it was an and-one,” Smith said. “Then the ref looked at me, and he looked at the vet.”

Charge. No basket.

There were those welcome-to-the-NBA moments. He learned a couple of things.

First, he learned that the stars in the league aren't the only guys who can play.

“The talent level is amazing,” he said. “When you've got guys like LeBron (James), (Kevin) Durant, Kobe (Bryant), just, are on another level. But you'd be surprised at how some of the guys who don't play are just as good as some of the rotation guys. It's very close. The margin of talent is very close, and you grow to have a lot of respect for a lot of guys who don't play or who haven't been able to play maybe because of the situation or whatever, but those guys can really play. . . . Like at Cleveland right now some guys are showing out. You'll always find that. Guys who haven't played in months have come in ready to play, and it's very professional.”

Smith has learned that he wants to develop that kind of professionalism. He already is seeing it in his game.

“I figured it out,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to develop as a player. Used to be if I came off a ball screen and I knew the play was over, I'd just dribble in and dunk it or take a shot or something. Now I come off the play and ask the coach, where does this ball need to go? Where are you looking for it to go? Rather than just BS it through. I can come off and if they want it to go to the corner, I can go to the corner, even if it's just a dummy-up play. I'm getting better with just being very patient and poised and reading the game. It's been a total 360.”

Still, he says, he hears Louisville coach Rick Pitino's voice in his head, after a turnover, or a play, good or bad.

“I've been well-prepared for the NBA being under Rick,” Smith said. “I went through a lot here. Went through criticism, went through waiting my turn, being at the end of a bench and all the way to starting. . . . I still hear him yelling at me. I'm just conditioned like that. In a good way.”

Smith signed a 3-year deal and made $816,462 as a rookie, but only the first year is guaranteed. He's working this summer to get his deal with Memphis extended.

Watching the NBA playoffs, he couldn't help but notice the evolution of the professional game, with guards becoming more important and big men emphasized a little less.

His father, Russ Sr., has noticed too.

“Sometimes timing is everything,” he said. “He just needs playing time, to show what he can do. Just like when he came to Louisville. Nobody thought he could do anything. Then he got a chance to get out there play and learn from his mistakes, it makes a big difference.”

Russ Smith is fully confident that chance will come.

“I'm just being patient and waiting my turn,” he said. “I know it's going to happen. I have a lot of confidence in my game. There are a lot of people who have confidence in me. So I've just got to play my role for now, play my part, and if something happens, which I'm positive it will, then it will happen for me.”

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