A lot of people this draft season have asked me who my favorite second round 2014 NBA Draft prospect is.
Everyone has a different opinion on this, obviously. Some people would have said Isaiah Austin before his debilitating Marfan syndrome diagnosis because of his incredible athleticism for his size. Others like Patric Young’s all-around defensive skills and think he’ll translate well. I’ve heard the names Jordan Clarkson or Cleanthony Early for their ability to score, and Walter Taveras or Vasilje Micic for their size and skill. All of those guys are fine, but there’s one player most people have rated below 30th that I like above the rest.
He goes by the nickname of Russdiculous.
Russ Smith is an undersized guard out of Louisville. Actually, let’s rephrase that. Russ Smith, at 6’1, 160 lbs, is a significantly undersized guard out Louisville. That’s where the conversation ends for some people, as they wonder how a guard that small could possibly survive in the NBA. Hell, even a point guard like Marcus Smart outweighs Smith by nearly 70 lbs. Those people would be wrong to underestimate him.
Smith is now a two-time KenPom player of the year award winner, and brings an immense and complete skill level to the table. He can break down almost any defender off the dribble and get into the paint, shoot well from distance, make plays for others, and provide high-intensity defense. I’m not sure there is much more you could ask for. Let’s take a look at each of these factors and discuss why Smith would make sense for any number of teams in the 20s or 30s.
Smith was a prolific, albeit inefficient scorer for his first two seasons in Louisville after basically sitting out his freshman year. He shot 39% over nearly 1,000 shots those two seasons, plus was only a 32% three-point shooter. Basically, from a scoring standpoint, Smith was a non-prospect until this season. However, this year he put up a blistering 58% TS% while shooting 39% from three with a 30.7% USG rate. How did Smith become so valuable and efficient on offense after being so inefficient each of the past two seasons? Let’s take a look at his shot chart from Dylan Burkhardt at ShotAnalytics.com:
Smith’s high-volume, high-efficiency shooting from above the break opened up the rest of the game in the paint. Over the last three seasons, Smith has gone from a 50% shooter at the rim as a sophomore to a 64% shooter at the rim as a senior. The reason for this is that he’s become smarter about his drives. After drawing 6.7 fouls and taking 9.1 FTs per-40 minutes as a junior, Smith saw those numbers drop to 6.1 and 8 as a senior. He added in a little ten foot floater, meaning he’s no longer forced to go all the way to the rim to finish his drives. It’s fair to say leaves something to be desired from the midrange, but given that threes and shots in the paint are the models of efficiency, a forward thinking organization could allow Smith to simply be himself and really control a second unit offensively.
Smith’s ability to break down a defense and get into the paint is his most NBA-ready skill, and it’s the thing he’s most comfortable with doing. Whenever he gets into the paint, he knows exactly when the defense is about to collapse on him and is excellent at finding both dump offs to big men (Montrezl Harrell was a beneficiary here) and kick-outs to spot-up shooters (hi, Final Four MOP Luke Hancock). He averaged 6.3 assists per-40 minutes this year, as he started to look for others on his drives instead of finishing himself. His AST% skyrocketed from 21.1% as a junior to 31.6% as a senior.
It’s worth mentioning within here as well that his turnover rate jumped a little bit this season from 13.5% to 15.2% while his USG% dropped slightly. He’s still a somewhat turnover-prone player, but his decision-making actually did improve this season. To try to quantify it, Smith missed about nine shots per game as a junior, but only eight as a senior. He only turned the ball over .1 more times per game as a senior than he did as a junior, meaning his negative-result possessions dropped despite his turnover percentage rising.
To play as a guard in Rick Pitino’s high-pressure defensive scheme, you need to not only have the quickness and stamina to defend, but you also need to have a high-intensity motor. Smith has that in spades. He not only forces turnovers on the other end — his steal rate of 4.0% was second in the AAC behind teammate Chris Jones and was top 30 in the entire country — but he hounds other players on the perimeter and annoys them relentlessly. Here’s what DraftExpress’ Kyle Nelson had to say about Smith’s defensive skill when he scouted him on April 21:
"On film, his excellent lateral quickness, length, and aggressiveness allow him to be an elite on-ball defender, skills that should translate seamlessly to the next level. Likewise, he fights through screens, gets in passing lanes, and makes hustle plays, all of which make him an intriguing NBA prospect, despite his lack of size and slight frame."
Also, Suns’ general manager Ryan McDonough had complimentary words to say about Smith’s defensive skill after his second workout with the team:
"Experience aside, General Manager Ryan McDonough said on May 30 what he noticed most was Smith’s speed and ability to anticipate on defense.This time around, McDonough said it was Smith’s attitude and willingness to play that set him apart.“Russ has great energy,” McDonough said. “Some of these guys, if you ask them to come back, they kind of moan about it, complain, say how tired they are — Russ I feel like could play two more games and do three more workouts tonight and be fine, it’s just that kind of well-conditioned athlete coming out of a great program at Louisville."
Basically, you know what you’re getting with Smith on that end, and it’s going to be a high-effort player that you don’t have to worry about.
Overall thoughts and where he fits best:
It’s possible that Smith has been the busiest player on the workout circuit this draft season, as he’s interviewed with no less than 17 teams. It’s pretty clear that Smith isn’t afraid of anyone. It’s that kind of fearlessness that a team can expect when taking him, and that kind of fearlessness that will allow him to be ready to step in immediately to an NBA bench role.
As far as where Smith fits best, he’s going to need a coach that allows him to be himself. That’s not necessarily the easiest thing considering how much he wants the ball in his hands. The best comparison I can come up with for Smith is an Aaron Brooks that is better defensively. Brooks came out of Oregon at 6’0, 161 lbs and made an immediate impact for a 55-win Houston team, playing 12 minutes per game and scoring 5 points per before blossoming into a 25 minute-per-game player the next season. If he gets into the right situation, Smith can be that player.
The right situation for him is most likely an up-tempo, high-pressure defensive scheme where he can push the pace and knock down shots. The perfect place for him is Miami at #26, although it seems like they are zeroed in Shabazz Napier. I personally see Smith as a better fit for them than Napier, although there isn’t a ton separating the two. Some other fits?
Houston at #25: The Rockets love to get out and run. Smith could help shore up their defective perimeter defense, and oh god I just imagined him and Patrick Beverley on the floor at the same time and oh god other teams will want to start fist-fights with them because of their energy and relentlessness.
Phoenix at #27: As mentioned above, he’s worked out there twice. The Suns had the 8th fastest pace in the NBA last season, and may look to insure themselves in the unfortunate event that they have to allow Eric Bledsoe to leave via free agency.
Cleveland at #33: The Cavs haven’t had a plus-perimeter defender on their team that isn’t a complete black hole offensively since LeBron left. Smith could help spell Irving and give opposing teams a different change of pace off the bench.
Philadelphia at #31 and #39: The Sixers played at the fastest pace since 2010 last season, and Smith could definitely play next to Michael Carter-Williams or Dante Exum as a spot-up shooter and tough perimeter defender on point guards as they slide over to defend SGs.
Smith has great potential to be an excellent role player in the NBA if he goes to the right system that allows the maximization of his talents. We’ll get to see whether or not that happens on Thursday night.