JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Russ Smith and Chris Smith are not related, but both are from the New York area and both play shooting guard.
And this year, Louisville coach Rick Pitino is counting on both to come up big.
Russ Smith, a 6-foot sophomore from Brooklyn, was originally recruited as a point guard.
“Russ is not a point guard and I tried to play him at point,” Pitino said during an exclusive interview with SNY.tv at Hudson Catholic High School.
Smith’s freshmen year was a mess. He suffered a broken foot at the start of last season and was limited during the year by a slew of injuries, including a concussion, a strained foot and a sore knee.
Yet coming into the summer, Pitino shifted him to off guard and Smith flourished during the team’s trip to the Bahamas.
He scored 26 points in an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 11 and then tallied a team-high 22 points during a win over the Real Deal Shockers on Aug. 12.
“He was terrific,” Pitino said of Smith, who played at Archbishop Molloy before spending a prep year at South Kent (Conn.).
“Since we played him at the two, Russ has been a valuable player in our program.”
Russ figures to be one of the backups for Chris, a 6-2 senior from Millstone, N.J.
Chris is the younger brother of Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, whom Pitino recruited at St. Benedict’s Prep. J.R. ultimately signed with North Carolina and later opted to go straight to the NBA.
Like Russ, Chris has his own interesting story.
After opting to transfer from Manhattan in April 2009, then-Louisville assistant Steve Masiello told Pitino that J.R. wanted to pay for his brother to come play for Pitino at Louisville.
“Well, is he any good?” Pitino asked Masiello.
“Well, you saw him with Samardo [Samuels] at St. Benedict’s,” Masiello said.
“Yeah, but is he good enough for us?” Pitino responded.
“He’s a good athlete at Manhattan,” Masiello answered. “I think he’d be a ninth or 10th man at Louisville.”
“Is he willing to accept that?” Pitino asked.
Then, after not hearing anything further about it, Pitino walked into the gym one day in August 2010 and saw Samuels playing with “his friend.”
“I think it’s Samardo’s friend,” Pitino said. “I say hello to Samardo, I shake Chris’s hand. I don’t know who he is, never seen him before.”
Pitino then asked Masiello, “Who’s Samardo’s friend?”
“Coach, that’s J.R.’s brother, Chris Smith,” Masiello said.
“What’s he doing here?” Pitino said.
“Coach, I mentioned to you in February that he may come here,” Masiello said.
“He’s coming here?” Pitino asked.
After arriving as a walk-on transfer, Chris Smith has flourished at Louisville. He started in 20 of the last 26 games last year and averaged 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the season.
This year, he was named a tri-captain, along with Peyton Siva and Kyle Kuric.
“He started for us last year, had a heck of a junior year,” Pitino said. “He’s a tri-captain this year. He’s a basketball junkie. He’s a great leader. His family is wonderful.”
All this from a player Pitino thought was some nameless friend of Samardo Samuels.
Pitino is also very high on 6-6 freshman forward Chane Behanan. “He’s really, really much more advanced than even I thought at this stage,” he said. Pitino also said 6-11 sophomore center Gorgui Dieng is “very good.” He called junior point guard Peyton Siva “great.”…Pitino hopes to get Kevin Ware eligible by December. Ware is a 6-4 guard from Conyers, Ga.
**Pitino: UConn to the ACC is ‘dumbest thing’ he’s ever heardFollow Adam Zagoria on TwitterAnd like ZAGS on Facebook
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.