PHOENIX — Louisville Cardinals point guard Russ Smith has already been through five team workouts, and his Friday meeting with the Phoenix Suns put his best strengths out there. With teams allowed to invite only six workout attendees a day, Smith zipped around the extra space provided in 3-on-3s, and he said his jump shot and passing ability stood out a bit.
The conditioning part of the up-tempo Suns’ audition, which ends with players running as many laps as possible in three minutes, wasn’t a big deal. Louisville and legendary coach Rick Pitino had prepared Smith.
Yet, there’s still not much the 160-pound point guard can do to budge his draft stock upward, even though he proved to be one of college basketball’s best players, a leader of a national title squad for a coach highly-respected around the NBA.
“I’ve been shooting the ball tremendous, I’ve been getting by my man,” Smith said Friday. “Just this past season, I’ve shown that I can put on a passing clinic. At the LA Clippers workout, I put on a passing clinic. I can jump, I can defend, so honestly don’t know what I have to do.”
The comments weren’t a complaint but more of an admission that he’s fighting an uphill battle in a evaluation process where youth and rare athletic gifts often get a player further than a resume.
The Cardinals point guard averaged 18.2 points in his senior season, and he showed significant improvements in his three-point shot and assist numbers. His long-range accuracy bumped from 33 percent to 39 percent, and his assists got a boost from 3.8 averaged per 40 minutes to 6.3.
Smith is currently tabbed by Draft Express to go 49th overall , a pick before the Suns’ second round choice. On Friday, he worked out with Dwight Powell, the Stanford forward slotted to be picked by Phoenix at 50th, along with New Mexico point guard Kendall Williams, Pittsburgh swingman Lamar Patterson, Duke shooter Andre Dawkins and Davidson wing De’Mon Brooks.
Smith is gunning to work his way up the draft boards.
“I’m a realist, I probably won’t be top-15, top-20, but maybe I can sneak in the first round,” he said. “I’m trying to get as many workouts with as many as the top guys as possible, but I kind of can’t seem to get one. I’m working at it. Hopefully I’ll get one.”
Because high lottery picks shy away from working out and risking being embarrassed by lower-graded prospects like Smith, there’s still a chance he could make waves with a strong showing against middle first-round prospects. Many of those players have yet to get as deep into the draft process as some projected second round picks.
Smith is fighting off detractors because of his size. He’s 6-foot-1, thin at that, and projects as a bench spark plug in a similar role to Ish Smith. Obviously, that fits with the Suns’ system, one he said he’s been a fan of since the Steve Nash era.
“Louisville runs a lot of high pick-and-rolls,” said Suns general manager Ryan McDonough. “They obviously have a legendary former NBA coach in Pitino. They run an NBA-like set. It think their guys have a very good understanding of how to run the pick-and-roll and play NBA basketball. I mentioned, I think Russ would do very well in transition. In the halfcourt, I think he’ll have to get a little bit stronger and bulk up to handle the physicality of the NBA game. But he has a lot of things you can’t teach and had a lot of success in college.”
Both Jeff Hornacek and McDonough raved about Smith’s knack for ripping ball handlers who expose the ball. They like how he can speed up the game. But while he thrives in transition, Smith’s struggles could come to light in the halfcourt, where he could be bullied at his size. And offensively, he shot 63 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com — he will have to prove he can continue at a high pace despite his size or develop a floater to shoot more effectively over interior length.
“His role, at least early on in his career, would probably be a scorer coming off the bench, someone you bring into the game and gives you a boost – a spark plug,” McDonough said. “If you can do that, I think the size becomes less important if he can prove he can score and run a team. He’ll at least need to be able to guard point guards, and I think with his quickness and toughness he can do that.”
Smith on if he followed the Suns: “I’ve been a big fan since they had Stoudemire, Nash, Joe, Barbosa, Marion, Raja Bell. So I know they get up and down the floor. Even now with Bledsoe and Dragic and Ishmael from Wake, they get up and down and they get after it, and they like to shorten the possessions and get up and down quick.”
Smith also donned some Nike’s that matched the Suns’ practice floor
Russ Smith wore kicks to match the court. pic.twitter.com/jwRJ6LqzNB
— Kevin Zimmerman (@offensivelyfoul) May 30, 2014