The New Orleans Pelicans were without a draft pick heading into last week’s NBA Draft. However, they were able to swing a deal to get into the second round, shipping D-League superstar Pierre Jackson to the Philadelphia 76ers for the draft rights to Russ Smith of Louisville. Smith was one of the stars of Louisville’s 2013 NCAA national title team, and while his team wasn’t nearly the same in his senior season, he has a future as a potential secondary ball-handler and three-point shooter. Let’s look more in-depth at what Smith could potentially bring to the Pelicans.
Tale of the Tape
Name: Russ Smith
2013-2014 Per Game Stats: 18.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 4.6 APG, 2.0 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 46.8% FG%, 38.7% 3PT%, 70.5% FT%
Smith is woefully undersized for the NBA. At just a hair under six feet tall without shoes on, and weighing 160 pounds, Smith will have a lot to overcome if he’s going to succeed, especially if he’s playing off the ball, which projects in his future. Guys have stuck in the modern NBA at that height, of course (Isaiah Thomas and Ishmael Smith come to mind), but neither of those players have the slight frame that accompanies Smith’s lack of tall stature.
Smith pairs this size disadvantage with solid athletic ability, however, and that should help; a max vert of 37” and solid lateral quickness will help offset the lack of height, and he has a decent wingspan for a point guard. The other major concern with Smith’s physical tools is his durability, as Smith plays with a very aggressive style on both ends that could result in an injury prone tag. Smith has stayed relatively healthy throughout his career at Louisville, but against more elite athletes and bigger competition, over a longer season, playing with the intensity that Smith brings at his size could lead to injury problems.
Smith is first and foremost a scorer, and looks to be a more efficient scorer than Jackson at the NBA level, which makes the trade justifiable. Smith did a lot of his damage in isolation looks at Louisville, and he’s great at attacking the basket or pulling up for jumpers out of ISOs that revolve around using his agility to blow past defenders. He also became more consistent on catch-and-shoot looks this season, and while he didn’t see as many opportunities without Peyton Siva feeding him the ball, he will likely get these looks as a Pelican, similar to the role Brian Roberts played when he was playing off the ball with Tyreke Evans or Jrue Holiday last season.
Smith improved mightily as a distributor as a senior, averaging 4.6 assists per game. However, he still has some work to do to become a solid option on the ball, because he is not a good decision maker or a particularly talented passer. He has the tendency to lob passes, which commonly get intercepted, and this particularly happens when he attempts post entry. Where Smith does excel as a passer is in the open court, as he is a very threatening transition player, and has better vision when he can see the full floor. Smith could develop into more of a point guard due to the more wide-open offenses used in the NBA, but for the Pelicans, he’s likely to play more off-the-ball as a spot-up shooter and ISO threat.
Smith is a very underrated defensive prospect, and should be able to make an impact in the NBA on both ends. Even though his size isn’t ideal, Smith brings the same intensity he uses as a scorer on the defensive end. His athleticism is also helpful, as he has the quickness to stay with almost any perimeter player, and the strength to defend bigger opponents. He’s best as an on-ball defender, and is particularly adept against the pick-and-roll. It’s weird to think that, given his size and scoring ability, it’s Smith’s defensive ability that will likely make more of an impact on the NBA level. However, Smith should be able to adjust quite well to NBA defense given his athleticism and his background in Rick Pitino’s defensive system.
Smith attacks constantly on both ends. Offensively, he has the mindset of a No. 1 option, someone who believes that he can score every time he touches the ball. On the defensive end, Smith has great hands and is aggressive on the ball, and isn’t timid going up against shooting guards or even small forwards. Many have questions about his height and build; however, with Smith’s intensity and psychological profile, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Smith used that as fuel to become an effective player.
The role Smith should play in the NBA is that of the microwave scorer, like we see Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson do today. Smith’s game resembles that of Vinnie Johnson, the “original” microwave guy, who was a strong two-way player at 6’2” on the late-1980s Pistons. Johnson was incredibly strong for his size, and one of the most effective scorers off the bench ever. I think that’s Smith’s absolute ceiling, because I can’t see him being a good enough decision-maker to be a full-time starting point guard. However, he should be able to score in bunches off the bench, and play late in games because he’s a solid defensive player.
How Does He Fit on the Pelicans?
New Orleans is in desperate need of perimeter defense and shooting, and Smith brings both of those things. He should play the Brian Roberts role for the Pelicans offensively, as a secondary ball-handler off the bench who can provide spot-up options for the team’s pick-and-roll centered offense. Defensively, he’s a much better option than Roberts or Jackson, and with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik behind him, Smith should be an effective defensive player immediately. Many second rounders are little more than projects for teams to work with that have a low success rate. However, Smith is the type who should be able to play immediately, and if he can overcome his size, Smith should easily be on the Pelicans’ roster this fall.