Scoring Sensation Russ Smith's Message to NBA Doubters: 'I for Damn Sure Belong'

Yaron WeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2017

FRISCO, TX -  MARCH 11: Russ
Smith #0 of the Delaware 87ers drives the ball during game against the Texas Legends at The Dr Pepper Arena on March 11, 2017 in Frisco, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sergio Hentschel/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It's around 11 p.m. in China when Russ Smith answers the phone. His team, Luoyang, of China's National Basketball League, had a game earlier in the evening in Beijing, and he only recently returned to his hotel room.

He's tired and wondering whether to join some teammates at a hookah lounge to celebrate one of their birthdays. He's still getting used to life in China and hasn't gone out with them yet. Instead, he's been spending most of his off time in his room toggling between game film, TV and movies.

Also, he's a bit frustrated over how he played.

"They were sending like two or three guys at me every time I got the ball," Smith says when asked how he played. "I definitely lowered my scoring average. I did manage to squeeze out 46, though."

He's not joking.

Entering the contest, his sixth in China, Smith had been averaging 61.0 points per game (that number has since dropped to 57.7 over 11 games, per Asia-Basket.com). The former Louisville star dropped 62 in his NBL debut. He followed that up with a 42-point performance in what must have been an off day. Then 56, 64 and a video game-like 81 (including 10-of-17 from downtown).

For Smith, the 6'0", 26-year-old Brooklyn native and former second-round pick, China has become the land of opportunity. Shunned by the NBA and then rejected by a headstrong coach in Turkey, Smith decided to head east to rediscover the approach that once transformed him into one of college basketball's most captivating players.

"I wanted to try something different. I got a great opportunity here, so I'm just trying to seize the moment," he says. "I'm completely locked in here; it's been dope."

Smith, though, has never been one for cliched "humble athlete talk," and so he adds: "I don't believe there are 400 guys in that league better than me. You want to name like 150? Fine. Maybe I'm not a rotation guy. I'll practice, show up to every game in a suit and cheer on my teammates.

"But I for damn sure belong on an NBA roster."

NEWARK, DE- FEBRUARY 10:  Russ Smith #1 of the Delaware 87ers looks on during the NBA D-League game against the Canton Charge on February 10, 2017 at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, Delaware. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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Smith, who led Louisville to a national championship in 2013 and was a first-team All-American the following year, was originally drafted 47th overall in 2014 by the Philadelphia 76ers.

He spent that season and the next being shuttled back and forth between the NBA (where he appeared in 27 games for the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies) and its Development League. Never given much of a shot in the NBA, he looked to the then-named D-League as a place to best show he belonged.

Smith averaged 28 points and eight assists over the course of 22 games in the 2015-16 season. He scored a still-record 65 points in a game for the Delaware 87ers that March. Yet the NBA never came calling.

"I felt like I outperformed everybody, but the phone wasn't ringing the way it was supposed to be," Smith says. "I figured they forgot about me."

So he decided to change things up. He accepted a deal—worth $1 million, he says—to play for Turkey's Galatasaray Odeabank. Smith thought he was supposed to be the club's star. Instead, he was held to just nine minutes a game.

He claims Galatasaray's coach, Ergin Ataman, would send him away from the team for days and weeks at a time without explanation. That culminated with an October press conference in which Ataman blamed Smith for his team's struggles.

"We are playing without a point guard because our main point guard is playing terrible, unfortunately," he told reporters. "He gave us nothing in these five games, and also tonight I put him on the court during the last minute. If he gave us something then we'd have a chance to win the game. I'm talking about Russ Smith."

Smith's counter: It's silly to blame someone seeing only nine minutes per game for a team's mishaps. He also believes Galatasaray planted negative stories—such as his missing curfew or refusing to take a drug test—in an attempt to void his contract.

He says this all in an easy, humorous tone. There's no bitterness in his voice, no anger pent up inside or urge to lash out at his former team or coach.

"Looking back, that was the most important time of my life," Smith says. "It got me to the point where I had to ask, 'What am I playing for?' and realize again how lucky I am to be playing this game."

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 15:  Russ Smith #28 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against the Boston Celtics during the 2016 NBA Las Vegas Summer League game on July 15, 2016 at the the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
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He tried to give the D-League one more go and garnered a summer-league invitation from the Portland Trail Blazers, only to be cut loose once again. The blow hurt. He was down and for a moment even considered taking a year off.

"Just spend time with my girl, family, friends; be low-key," he says.

Then he thought back to the player he was in college. He was known as Russdiculous those days, a moniker Louisville head coach Rick Pitino bestowed upon him as a nod to his electric and erratic style of play, and also his eclectic personality.

This, after all, is a man who during his lone year at the South Kent School in Connecticut was busted by his coach during a road trip for leading the team down the hotel bar so they could sing karaoke. One year later, while deciding what college to play for, he committed to Louisville—before the school had even decided whether it wanted to offer him a scholarship.

"I remember we were on the phone after his visit and I asked him how he liked it, and he goes, 'It was great. I'm ready to commit right now,'" says Manhattan College head coach Steve Masiello, a former Louisville assistant. "I was, like, 'That's great, but we haven't offered you anything yet.' He goes, 'Doesn't matter. I'm coming.'"

Smith and Louisville head coach Rick Pitino
Smith and Louisville head coach Rick PitinoPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press/Associated Press

Masiello, who once played youth ball with Smith's father, Russ Smith Sr., laughs as he recalls this story. Something about Smith, he says, always brings a smile to his face.

Still, there have been tough moments. After his freshman year, for example, Smith considered transferring. His numbers were low, his playing time nearly nonexistent. Also, his relationship with Pitino had gotten off to a rocky start.

That spring, while on a recruiting trip in Chicago, Masiello hopped on a three-way call with Russ and his father to discuss Smith Jr.'s future.

"And Russ Sr. basically tells him, 'Stop playing the victim," Masiello says. "'Get back in the gym. I'm tired of hearing it.'" One year later, Smith had propelled himself into Pitino's rotation.

He figured playing in China could lead to similar results. At Louisville, according to the school's former video coordinator, Casey Stanley, Smith had turned the film room into a second home. And so this past spring Smith did the same.

He studied the various floaters and runners the NBA's smallest guards used to get off shots. He analyzed how Klay Thompson generated offense for himself while off the ball. He honed his jumper by making sure to convert at least 200 each practice.

"People see him and know the Russdiculous thing, and they think he's this cartoon character," says Mike McCleary, an assistant coach for Smith at Queens' Archbishop Molloy High School. "It's not that that stuff's an act—it's not—but he's a real guy who takes his craft seriously."

Stanley agrees: "He's such a fun-loving guy; people don't realize how hard he works on his game. He's someone who's addicted to getting better. That transformation he made at Louisville isn't something that could have happened if he wasn't."

Of course, setting nets on fire in China might not be enough to get back into the NBA. Says one league scout of the NBL: "That's not even the best league in China—the [Chinese Basketball Association] is. And the CBA isn't any good...the NBL is 10 times worse."

But 60 points a game has to mean something, no?

"I think he's definitely talented enough to be an NBA player," another scout adds. "He just has to find the right team that needs his position, skill set and can accept his limitations. That's always the hard part, and people don't realize how tough it is to not only make the NBA but also stay in that world, especially if you don't have God-given physical tools like height, length and freakish athleticism."

Smith says he understands and that he's ready.

"He's always had this ability to score. It's just that coaches are always trying to force him to be something different," South Kent head coach Kelvin Jefferson says. "I know I made that mistake; it's hard. …

"You have to let Russ be Russ."

                 

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.