In a brief moment of relief from ESPN’s strangely uncomfortable NBA Draft coverage, analyst Jalen Rose delivered a line of insight that should have stuck with the massive Louisville audience that tuned in on Thursday night.
"Positions were just created so a novice can follow the game."
Maybe he oversimplified, but it’s an interesting idea, and it’s true in many ways. In many ways, it’s an idea that even a novice can grasp.
Ask anyone who knows the five positions in basketball, and they’ll tell you that LeBron James is a small forward. Watch James play for a night, especially for the position-less Heat, and you’ll see that he’s not always playing the small forward "position".
It was a while after Rose said that simple phrase that Russ Smith was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers and traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, but his astute observation fits Smith to a tee.
During his time at Louisville, Smith was both a "point guard" and a "shooting guard". Maybe the easiest way to put it is that he was always a "scoring guard". Bill Simmons talked about a new breed of "zero guards" on ESPN’s telecast, referencing Russell Westbrook and the fact that while he’s the one who brings the ball up the floor, he’s not the cliché "pure point". Maybe Smith is one of those. It really doesn’t matter.
Smith has heard everything that’s wrong with him over and over again. He’s too small, he’s not a "true point guard", he’s too slight of build and his decision-making can be too reckless. Defensively, he’s a product of a system that’s highly successful in college but doesn’t happen in the NBA. There’s more, but that’s the gist.
All of these allegations aren’t wrong. Smith is a bit diminutive in NBA terms, his decision-making with the ball in his hands has made most that have watched him scratch their heads occasionally, and you rarely see a defensive scheme in the NBA that presses as a whole team and as regularly as Pitino’s teams famously do.
But since all of the measuring and evaluating is meaningless post-draft, it’s time to talk about how Russ Smith fits in the NBA, because he’s there now. We’ll start with the basics.
The five listed guards on New Orleans’ roster are Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Austin Rivers, Anthony Morrow and Brian Roberts. Roberts is a restricted free agent that the Pelicans apparently haven’t made a decision on yet, and Morrow has told the team he’s going to opt out of his contract, leaving plenty of room for Smith.
Gordon and Holiday are the obvious starting battery in the backcourt, and they probably aren't going anywhere. The Pelicans traded a hefty package for Holiday and got a good season from him in 2013-14, and Gordon’s contract is massive. But Smith at least sounds like a much more palatable bench option than Austin Rivers’ boring 40.5 shooting percentage and sub-optimal 63.6 free throw percentage.
For those that got the privilege to watch Rivers come off the bench last season against the Cleveland Cavaliers (me, twice), it was uninspiring on the whole (offense, defense, et al.). It was so uninspiring that he may not even be in Smith’s way on the roster when the new NBA season starts in October.
So now that Smith has a very real chance of being a change-of-pace player off of the New Orleans bench, we can talk about all of the things he does well. He’s a pesky on-ball defender, he’s a dynamic scorer with ever-improving shooting ability, and he’s a lightning-quick athlete with tricky handles.
If you heard the above description without watching tape or seeing how Smith’s stature measures up, you’d say that’s exactly what every team wants coming off the bench. He’s a shot of energy that can create easy baskets (they may look hard at times if we’re talking about Smith specifically, but alas), annoy opposing guards and hustle.
Hustle is one of Smith’s most valuable intangibles, which is the last piece of his puzzle that those of us in Louisville have witnessed in more ways than one. We’ve all heard the story. To say he was lightly recruited is an understatement, he nearly left the Cardinals early in his career at Louisville, and he overcame all of those obstacles to become a national champion and an All-American.
He turned into a coachable star that just wanted to do the right things. He sought the advice of decision-makers and improved whatever they said needed improvement. He won at the college level as a role-player and a leader. He did everything he could possibly do, and he was the 47th name called in Brooklyn on Thursday.
Given his career to date, why would it be any different?
Russ Smith has been doubted every step of the way. He’s been overlooked and discounted, but he’s made it all work so far and has surpassed expectations by leaps and bounds. From a two-star recruit to a second round pick, he’s ready to do it all again.
Bill Simmons' summary of Smith? A winner.
Jalen Rose’s (probably)? A "guard".
Louisville’s? A legend.
Someone we probably shouldn’t bet against.