Russ Smith is a scintillating basketball talent who has people curious to see if he's capable of carrying Louisville deep into March. The junior guard can pull off crossovers and put up points with the Big East's best, but his questionable shot selection and untimely letdowns open the door to questions about consistency and approach.
Smith, a Brooklyn native, provides the Cardinals with an edge on the outside, and his game has expanded this season, along with his playing time under coach Rick Pitino. Last season, the 6'0" speedster regularly gave Louisville a shot in the arm as a key reserve.
He averaged 11.5 points per game and proved himself as a crucial part of Pitino's current program foundation. Despite a largely successful sophomore season, Smith struggled from the floor, hitting just 36 percent of his field-goal attempts.
That inconsistency still plagues Louisville's leading scorer at times. Although he has raised his field-goal percentage to 40 percent this season, that's still rather low considering the volume of shots Smith takes each game.
Smith averages nearly 15 shots per game, which is six more attempts than anyone else on the team. He also hoists five three-pointers per contest, a large amount for someone who shoots just 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Is a roster filled with talent being shortchanged by Smith's quick trigger?
It's a fair question to ask when you factor in that he ranks last in field-goal percentage among the Cardinals top five scorers
Louisville (21-5) has lost four Big East matchups. Smith struggled in each defeat, filling the stat sheet with a series of erratic shooting displays
His cumulative numbers in those four matchups are 18-of-49 shooting (37 percent) and an ugly 2-of-19 mark (11 percent) from three-point territory. Smith struggled throughout a frustrating five-overtime loss at Notre Dame, hitting 4-of-19 from the floor and coming up empty in opportunities to win the game.
Smith's assist-to-turnover season total (72-to-65) also leaves a lot to be desired.
There's no denying that Smith is Pitino's top scoring threat, but is there a point when he must be asked to rein things in a bit and distribute more?
It's important to remember Smith has always been encouraged to continue shooting the ball, even if he's suffering through a slump. Jack Curran, who coached him at Queens' Archbishop Molloy High School, explained the star guard's mindset to Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn:
Russ never maddened me because he scored a lot of points. We don't get mad at those guys. As long as they put it in, they can shoot as much as they want. ... It's in his DNA: When he gets the ball, he thinks he's supposed to score. He really can't help himself with that.
There have been times when Pitino displays frustration about Smith's shoot-first approach. But the guard has bailed out his team plenty of times this season, so it's a fine line.
Smith has scored 20 or more points in 12 of 26 games. Louisville is 2-0 when he attempts at least 20 shots (wins over Connecticut and Kentucky).
This is where a grey area emerges.
Smith has shot less than 45 percent from the floor in nine of the Cardinals' last 12 games, a span in which the Big East's consensus preseason favorite is 8-4 and trying to keep up with Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette atop conference standings.
But should Louisville really ask its leading man to take a step back, even if it's a small one?
At this stage, it's probably a moot point.
The Cardinals have come this far with Smith serving as offensive catalyst, for better or worse. It's ingrained in Louisville's current identity, and his play will determine how far this team lasts in the postseason.
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