Smith: Defier of Expectations

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune Russ Smith and family at his last home game versus UConn on March 8, 2014.

Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune
Russ Smith and family at his last home game versus UConn on March 8, 2014.

Thursday figures to be one of the biggest nights of Russ Smith’s life, as the former Cardinal will find out which NBA roster he’ll spend the summer trying to make after the league holds its annual draft.

Only Smith won’t be watching.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s tough for me to watch something like that,” Smith told The New York Post this week. “I feel like I’m better than a lot of people and I’ve outperformed a lot of people. To have to watch them go ahead of me, it’s tough.

“I’m just preparing for the worst.”

While the consensus from NBA scouts and executives is that Smith has done nothing but help himself during workouts and camps over the past two months, there’s still not a mock draft floating around the Internet that has Russdiculous getting scooped up in the first round. Some don’t have him being drafted at all.

For both Smith and the Louisville fans who have watched him for the past four years, this is a bit hard to fathom.

Russ Smith is leaving UofL after becoming the school’s first consensus All-American since Clifford Rozier in 1994. He is the only player in UofL history with at least 1,800 points, 350 assists and 250 steals. He ranks fifth at Louisville in scoring, eighth in three-pointers and second in free throws. He is the program’s all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament play, and he was the leading scorer on a Cardinal team that brought a national championship back to the city for the first time since 1986.

If all of these NBA people wind up being wrong about Smith (which I think they will), I’ll be able to empathize.

In late 2010, I had a phone conversation about Smith with a friend who shall remain nameless. I will now attempt to recreate this conversation as best I can.

EQUALLY WRONG FRIEND: So does Russ leave at the end of the semester or at the end of the season?
Me: I think he’ll make it through the year, but yeah…
EWF: I’m not sure we’ve ever had a less-Louisville player.
M: Yeah, he might be the most predictable transfer we’ve ever had.
EWF: Don’t get me wrong, I think he could be an average player in the MAAC or a bottom-tier A-10 school, but he’ll never see the court here. He has to know this.
M: Couldn’t agree more. Two years from now, Russ Smith will be an up-and-down player at Duquesne.

Russ Smith did not transfer to a MAAC program, and he did not become an up-and-down player at Duquesne. He racked up that long list of achievements I’ve already laid out. So, yeah, I was wrong.

At the risk of being narcissistic, I think the best way I can sum up my belief that Russ will make it in the NBA is with my own words. I wrote the following back in 2011 after Russ made the first start of his career against Memphis, and again furthered the notion that his emergence was more than just a fleeting joke:

“This whole Russ Smith thing, whatever it is, continues to be absolutely mind-blowing. The truth, I can’t think of any other (Louisville basketball) situation to compare it with.

A year ago I would have said it was about 50 times more likely that Russ Smith would not be playing basketball anywhere than it would be for him to score 24 points (U of L’s first 20+ scorer all season, mind you) against Memphis and be named Big East Player of the Week as a result.

It’s often the case when players go from unheralded to heralded that you hear people say, “you know, I saw a little flash of his ability” or “I actually kind of saw this coming.” I never, ever saw this coming. I thought Russ was plenty talented enough to have a productive college career…somewhere much smaller. Instead, I’m watching him record seven steals in maybe the biggest game of the season so far, and finding myself saying “just get it to Russ” when we have the ball on offense.

That kid deserves all the credit in the world for his hard work and perseverance.”

No NBA prospect has worked harder to be in the situation he is than Russ Smith, and no NBA prospect has already overcome odds as large as Russ Smith has. You’ll have to forgive him if he’s not taking your doubt to heart right now.