True to form, Russ Smith has yet to settle on his next move.
He might zig. He might zag. He might take his improvisational skills back to the bootheel of Italy. He might reprise his Russdiculous residencies in China.
What he almost certainly won’t do is catch the basketball break that has eluded him for nearly a decade now and find lasting fulfillment in the NBA. At 32, Smith is a local legend, an intercontinental ballistic baller, an aspiring bourbon baron and still struggling to get noticed.
Last month, playing for Nardo in Italy’s second-tier league, Smith finished his season as the leading scorer among all of the country’s professionals. Next month, he is scheduled to suit up for a team of contemporaries known as The Ville in a nostalgic event dubbed The Basketball Tournament.
With the NBA selecting its newest class of draft choices Thursday night, Smith continues to hold out hope for an invitation to training camp, a hope that diminishes by the day.
“I think it’s size and optics,” he said. “Then you have to get an opportunity. Opportunities don’t just happen. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
He was standing in front of Freedom Hall following a press conference called to promote The Basketball Tournament and his burgeoning brand, Mr. & Mrs. Bourbon, his full beard in stark contrast to his unusually slight frame.
To see Smith in street clothes is to imagine NBA executives questioning how such a puny figure could withstand the rigors of a long season. To see him in action has been to wonder if he prized spontaneity at the expense of structure; if his creativity too often undermined his decision-making; whether his Russdiculous tendencies could be tempered by cold calculation.
But because his stat sheet has long been proof of high productivity, Smith’s career arc continues to confound those who have watched him most closely. A first-team All-America at Louisville and only the fifth U of L men’s basketball player to have his number retired, Smith averaged a preposterous 61.2 points per game in 2017 with Luoyang of China’s National Basketball League. He averaged 24.3 points for Nardo this past season.
“Why have you just not gotten your NBA shot?” University of Louisville radio analyst Bob Valvano asked Smith on his Wednesday show. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s a miss,” said Mark Lieberman, the former U of L assistant who is coaching The Ville. “We’ve seen wispy players in the NBA like him before. It’s not like he doesn’t defend. He’s a tremendous defender on the ball, off the ball. His eyes are as good as any players I’ve ever coached… He can anticipate better than anybody, so the fact that he hasn’t gotten that shot consistently amazes me.”
A second-round selection of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Smith’s NBA career has consisted to date of 131 minutes played in parts of two seasons for the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. He last appeared in NBA game on Dec. 27, 2015, playing the last 6:51 of a Memphis blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I have a better feel for the game (now),” Smith said. “Maybe I’ve lost some jumping (ability), but I know where my spots are a lot better. They were everywhere before. Now, it’s more compartmentalized.”
Peyton Siva, Smith’s more measured sidekick on Louisville’s 2013 NCAA title team, says the pair will play less full-court defense as a concession to advancing age. He says the game has slowed down as he has gained a better understanding of its “intricacies,” and that fans who attend The Basketball Tournament will see “a lot of maturity” from Smith.
“He can still get wherever he wants with the basketball,” Lieberman said. “No matter how many times teams try to keep him out of the paint, you can’t deny Russ Smith paint touches.
“He’s going to make the right play. Before, he might force a shot, but he’s a better passer (now). His decision-making has gone up exponentially.”
Still pending is a decision on Russ Smith’s next move. Still unclear is what it might take to interest the NBA.
“Maybe I’ll get a training camp invite from an NBA team,” Smith said. “That’s on the table. We’ll see. We’ll see.”
If only wishing, or scoring, made it so.
“If I was a GM, I would,” Smith said.