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How Russ Smith Can Hang on with the New Orleans Pelicans

this is a discussion within the Pelicans Community Forum; Russ Smith’s basketball life has changed dramatically in the past year. A season ago, he was lighting up the collegiate level at Louisville and earning spots on the Associated Press and Wooden Award All-American teams. Smith finished his senior campaign ...

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Old 12-11-2014, 03:30 PM   #1
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How Russ Smith Can Hang on with the New Orleans Pelicans

Russ Smith’s basketball life has changed dramatically in the past year.

A season ago, he was lighting up the collegiate level at Louisville and earning spots on the Associated Press and Wooden Award All-American teams. Smith finished his senior campaign averaging 18.2 points, 4.6 assists and two steals per game for a team that reached the Sweet 16.

In June, things changed. The 23-year-old was taken with the 47th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers and was later acquired by the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Pierre Jackson.

Smith went from a collegiate star to a professional underdog.

Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, he’s played in just three games for the Pelicans and has yet to contribute a bucket. Smith has seen strictly garbage-time minutes for New Orleans, but he’s held his own during his two games in the Developmental League.

Despite the odds stacked against him, the 6’0”, 165-pound guard does indeed have a shot at making a name for himself in the NBA.

But it won’t be easy, and it might take some time.

Tear Up the D-League

After two games in the D-League, Smith was briefly called up to New Orleans this week before being reassigned back down Thursday after not seeing any action against the Dallas Mavericks the previous night, The Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer reported.

However, the rookie acknowledged that the Pelicans wanted him to practice with them while the Fort Wayne Mad Ants were off for a few days, per John Reid of NOLA.com.

“I’m probably be going back and forth,” Smith said, via Reid. “That’s the reality of it. But I am accepting it because I’m not the player I want to be right now. I get a chance to work on a lot of stuff. It’s not like a punishment. It’s just a way for me to get better.”

Smith is traveling a dangerous road right now—one night he's in the D-League and the next night he's in the pros. If he can’t find a concrete home in a few years, his ultimate destination will be basketball irrelevancy.

Demotion in itself is not a death sentence, though. There have been plenty of D-League graduates to emerge into solid NBA players with legitimate roles—Jeremy Lin, Gerald Green, Jeremy Lamb, Danny Green, Kendall Marshall, Shelvin Mack, Garrett Temple, Alan Anderson, Steve Novak and Troy Daniels, to name a few.

In his first two games with Fort Wayne, Smith averaged 14.5 points, three assists, three steals and two rebounds in nearly 26 minutes of action. While he helped the Mad Ants win both contests, his glaring blemish was a combined nine turnovers.

Pelicans coach Monty Williams has given Smith 11 total minutes in three games this year, and the diminutive guard has committed five fouls, turned the ball over four times, grabbed one rebound and missed a pair of 3-pointers.

Granted, no player could thrive in an average of 3.7 minutes a night, but the rookie has not given Williams any reason to have faith in him.

As he acknowledged, Smith will spend a lot of time in the D-League this season, which would be a shrewd decision by the Pelicans. Instead of wasting his time on the bench, it's better to let him play and improve his game.

While he’s down there, the former college hero needs to really kick it into high gear.

Smith is a native of New York, but you could figure that out by watching him play.

His handle is lethal, his passion is obvious and his hustle is unmatched. And he's fast, too, but sometimes his speed gets him into trouble when he tries to go 1-on-5 or do too much.

Turnovers weren't really a problem at Louisville—as he never averaged more than 2.8 per game—but with better competition at the professional level, Smith’s penchant for giveaways has increased.

Here’s what the Pelicans coach had to say about Smith earlier in the year, per Reid:
He’s a dynamic basketball player. Like most young guys, he’s learning the NBA game. His footwork could be a lot better.


A lot of times, he's standing straight up and he's so fast. If he was just down in a stance, he would blow by everybody. But he does that anyway. For a point guard or guard in general, you can't just know your spot. You've got to know all five spots.

The Pelicans know he can score. They know he can penetrate defenses and make exciting plays, but what the team has yet to see is that he’s trustworthy with the ball.

That’s what Smith needs to do in the D-League: gain Williams’ trust.

Stay Patient, Wait for Opportunity

At some point, whether it be this year or next, Smith will get a shot to prove his NBA value.

His two-year contract includes a team option (less than $1 million) for 2016-17. This summer, New Orleans could potentially lose Austin Rivers, John Salmons, Luke Babbitt, Jimmer Fredette and the recently signed Gal Mekel to free agency.

If Smith proves to be productive before his option comes up, the team could view him as a better bang for their buck than the free-agent market and keep him around.

But for that to happen, he needs to show that he’s worthy of the investment.

“I'm just taking my situation as I took it in high school and college,” Smith said after his first call-up, via Reid. “I've never been a player to come in and contribute or do something right away. But once I get my feet wet and get used to something, I've always been a major contributor down the road. I feel like that's the same path I'm going on.”

In high school, Smith wasn't invited to any top-100 camps, but he improved his vertical leap to an astounding 43 inches his junior year and then committed to the Cardinals.

During his freshman season at Louisville, he played just 5.6 minutes a night and scored 2.2 points. The following year, he earned 21.5 minutes and contributed 11.5 points.

Smith's big explosion came during his junior campaign when Rick Pitino gave him more than 30 minutes a night and was rewarded with 18.7 points. Smith helped lead the Cards to a 35-5 record that season and, most importantly, a national championship.

Throughout his hoops career, Smith has proven to be a slow starter. And that trend has held true during his brief stint in New Orleans.

But he’s also proven to be a star.

While he might not be as dominant in the pros as he was in college, Smith is still a supremely quick guard with a killer crossover. His jumper and decision-making need improvement, but that’s why the Pelicans are going to let him develop with the Mad Ants.

Don’t expect him to make any kind of real contribution to New Orleans in 2014-15, but the team could really use him down the road.

In their second nationally televised game of the year, the Pelicans got killed by Dallas' depth—particularly with Devin Harris (20 points) at point guard—and let a winnable game slip away, 112-107.

According to HoopsStats.com, New Orleans currently ranks 24th in bench-points per game. And there's no savior on the horizon coming to lift that second unit anytime soon.

So next season, if he can cut down the turnovers and earn his coach’s trust, Smith could emerge as an off-the-bench spark plug—think Nate Robinson meets J.J. Barea—and play in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 minutes per game for the Pelicans.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and RealGM as of Dec. 11.

Read more New Orleans Pelicans news on BleacherReport.com

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