Russ Smith might not improve his stock, but this was the right move
There was no guarantee Russ Smith would be in the NBA next season. So why rush out of Louisville?
Russ Smith announced Wednesday that he'll return to Louisville for his senior season.
He said he wants to graduate college.
He said he wants to make a third straight Final Four.
He said he wants to improve his so-called NBA Draft stock.
But can he and will he?
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There's little doubt Smith will graduate because he's on track to graduate, and he'll also compete for another Final Four because, my lord, have you looked at Louisville's roster? But whether the 6-foot-1 point guard will improve as a prospect in the minds of NBA scouts is debatable because he's neither 6-foot-1 nor really a point guard. Smith is probably closer to 6-foot, perhaps even 5-foot-11, and he's never really run a team. And considering Chris Jones, a junior college All-American point guard, is about to enroll at Louisville, it's reasonable to wonder whether Smith will even get the opportunity to run the Cards next season regardless of what anybody, including Rick Pitino, is saying now.
"Considering all the rave reviews of Chris Jones, I don't think Russ will be the guy with the ball in his hands," one NBA scout told CBSSports.com. "So I don't know if Russ will be able to show what NBA people want to see before we exercise a high pick on him."
Added another NBA scout: "Russ could still improve his stock by being more consistent and a better decision-maker whenever he does have the ball in his hands. But I just have a real trust issue with him, as he is going to have to play point guard in the NBA."
So the consensus, best I can tell, is this: Russ Smith is a fine college basketball player. But he's small. And he's not a point guard. And there's no guarantee he'll prove -- or even have the opportunity to prove -- next season at Louisville that he's capable of being a competent ball-handler at the NBA level, which means there's a decent chance Smith will, a year from now, be exactly what he is today, i.e., a second-round pick.
But that doesn't mean this decision is a mistake.
In fact, it's probably smart -- mostly because, well, what was the alternative?
"Some of these kids just want to jump off the high board without knowing if there's even any water in the pool," said one NBA scout. "Russ stopped short of that and finally asked himself: What am I so hellbent on rushing into?"
Answer: Probably the D-League or an overseas job. Those were the two most likely destinations, meaning the idea that Smith was "choosing between Louisville and the NBA" was never exactly true. He was actually choosing between Louisville and being a "professional at some level," and that level might've ultimately been something that compensated him at a rate of around $20,000 annually in the D-League. Now contrast that with life at Louisville -- where Smith will likely be a First Team All-American, eat from a magnificant training table, travel on chartered planes and compete on national television inside soldout arenas -- and it's easy to understand why Smith chose what he chose.
"The pros of staying," Smith said, "were so much better than the pros of leaving."
Which is not to suggest Smith will somehow have better options this time next year because, as stated above, there are lots of reasons to think NBA executives will view him similarly -- as a well-known prospect from a great team who is simply flawed to his core. But next year Smith won't have a decision to make because the NCAA only allows student-athletes four seasons. So his eligibility will be expired, and it'll then be time to move on regardless of the options because Louisville, at that point, won't be an option. But right now, at this time, Louisville is an option. And it's the best option. So Russ Smith chose Louisville. And if NBA scouts want to see him prove he's a good decision-maker, well, doesn't Wednesday's announcement qualify as a decent first example?
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