Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Louisville’s Russ Smith, Confounding Coaches from High School to College
NEW ORLEANS — Russ Smith has been confounding coaches from high school to college.
Just ask Kelvin Jefferson.
For Jefferson, the coach at South Kent (Conn.) prep school, even Smith’s recruitment by Louisville was highly unorthodox.
“Russ had committed before they offered,” Jefferson told SNY.tv before letting out a hearty laugh.
“I want to go to Louisville,'” Jefferson recalled Smith saying during his final season at South Kent in 2009-10.
“Russ, well, you can’t commit,” Jefferson recalled saying. “They haven’t offered you a scholarship yet.”
“Well, eventually they did and the rest is kind of history,” Jefferson recalled.
The 6-foot Smith, a Briarwood, N.Y., native, is now a key player for Louisville entering Saturday’s national semifinal here against Kentucky.
He is averaging 13.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and scored 30 points in the Cardinals’ 69-62 loss to the Wildcats on Dec. 31. That’s the most points anybody has scored against Kentucky this season.
“He shot the ball well,” said Kentucky forward Anthony Davis, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. “He got to the lane a lot. He made some plays. He went to the free throw line and made his free throws.
“Like Coach Cal [John Calipari] says, ‘If one guy gets 30, make sure the other guys are not scoring.’ That’s what we have to do.'”
Smith’s breakout game against Kentucky was followed by a 17-point outing against St. John’s. But in his next two games, Smith scored just 3 and 2 points, respectively, in losses to Notre Dame and Providence.
His erratic play has confounded Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who has taken to calling him “Russdiculous.”
“I put him in the game and all the coaches just hold hands and pray, and we see what happens,” Pitino said earlier this week. “We never know what to expect with Russ.
“He gives us an awful lot and, sometimes toward the end of the [Florida] game he dribbles and went baseline, and kept his dribble alive. And you thought he was going to play Steve Nash and go to [a teammate], he just threw the ball up to the other team to make it interesting.”
Jefferson can relate.
“I empathize with Coach Pitino because I know that Russ can be frustrating,” Jefferson said. “The best thing about him is he has no conscience. He misses the previous 10 shots [and it] has no bearing on if he’s going to take the next shot or not. And that’s what makes him so good, I think, is that he has the ability to think that the next shot is going in.”
While playing for legendary Archbishop Molloy coach Jack Curran, Smith led the New York City Catholic league (CHSAA) in scoring two years. As a senior he averaged 29.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
But he came to South Kent to increase his recruiting options and ostensibly to become a point guard.
Jefferson had J.J. Moore, now at Pittsburgh, as his two guard and tried to play Smith at the point.
“Everybody, including myself, thought, ‘Alright, this kid we know he can score, but we have to show everybody he can run a team, he can be a point guard and be a high assist guy,'” Jefferson said.
“That was the biggest mistake because Russ is who he is.”
Then-Louisville assistant Steve Masiello had a strong relationship with Russ Smith Jr. and his father, Russ Sr., and watched the son play several times at Molloy and again at South Kent.
“Coach Pitino didn’t love him,” Masiello said. “I thought he was a good player. Ralph Willard went and saw him with me and Ralph loved him. The reason we took him was because of Ralph Willard. I had the relationship, that was a no-brainer but Ralph was the guy who really loved Russ.”
“Ralph Willard kept hitting me,” Pitino recalled Thursday. “He said, ‘That’s they guy we should go after.'”
Jefferson also wasn’t sure what to make of the kid’s talents.
“It was easy to see the kid was talented but there were so many other things,” Jefferson said. “Is this what we need? Does he fit what we’re trying to do? He’s not really a point guard, can we make him a point guard?”
Once he arrived on campus, Pitino still tried to make Smith a point guard.
But Smith was limited by injuries his freshman season, including a broken foot and a concussion, and played only 17 games.
“Russ is not a point guard and I tried to play him at point,” Pitino told SNY.tv last fall.
For a period after his freshman season, there was a chance Smith would end up transferring to Manhattan to play for Masiello, now the head coach.
“I talked to his dad (Russ Sr.), who I knew when his dad was Russ’s age and I was the Knicks’ coach at the time,” Pitino said. “I said to him, ‘Look, if it doesn’t work out next year, we’ll try him once again; we will send Russ to go play with Steve Masiello, possibly, at Manhattan College. ‘Big Russ’ wanted him to have one more year.
Coming into the summer, Pitino shifted Smith to off guard and he 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.
“Since we played him at the two, Russ has been a valuable player in our program.”
Said Jefferson: “Pitino is a great coach and a lot smarter than me, smart enough to say, ‘OK, this is what Russ does and we’re going to allow him to do it and obviously he’s having lot of success with it.'”
Pitino said Smith had never won a championship before the Cardinals captured the Big East tournament title earlier this month at Madison Square Garden.
“Russ Smith was on the foul line at the end of the Big East Tournament and he just yelled over to the bench, ‘I’m finally going to win a championship,'” Pitino recalled.
“He’s never won in his life,” Pitino added.
Pitino said Curran, Smith’s high school coach, later called Smith to say, “Russ, what are you doing. winning and playing defense? I don’t recognize you.'”
Just another example of Russ Smith confounding an old coach on the basketball court.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
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.