When a kid in grade school moves towns and switches schools, it can be a good thing. It gives them an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to make new impressions, and perhaps make people perceive them differently at the new school than the way they were perceived at the old school.
Russ Smith's demeanor doesn't lead you to believe that he is a kid who is ever going to change. He's the kid who is exactly the same at his new school as he was at his old school. In this case, the old school is Louisville, and the new school is the NBA.
At Louisville, head coach Rick Pitino nicknamed Smith "Russdiculous", because it aptly describes Smith's crafty, untamed, and often maddening style of play. Russ was unable to temper his improvisational tendencies, and that's precisely what made him the star he was at Louisville while simultaneously causing his coaches to lose their minds on the bench.
During the NCAA Tournament in Louisville's 2012-13 National Championship season, Smith took over game after game, leading all scorers with 25.0 points per game heading into the Championship game. In the title game, Smith went cold, took multiple bad shots, and shot 3/16 from the field. It didn't matter, but it was a stark reminder that a "Russdiculous" performance is impossible to predict.
At this early juncture in Smith's NBA career, it is tough to tell if his playing style has changed at all on his basketball journey. Currently in the middle of his rookie season, Smith has only played a total of twenty-nine minutes in six games.
Most of Smith's limited minutes have come in garbage time, and he hasn't had a chance to do too much when in the game. He's 2/10 from the field on the season, but a lack of made shots certainly does not stem from a lack of confidence.
In pure "Russdiculous" fashion, on one play late in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers, Smith received a high ball screen to enable him to shed his defender. He then drove right down the middle of the lane to the rim and rose up right in Meyers Leonard's face to shoot a tough layup. He missed, but he didn't even hesitate to elevate to face a battle in the air with a seven-footer.
With a logjam of veteran players in the Pelicans backcourt, Smith was unable to force his way into the rotation, so they sent him to the NBA D-League. His D-League stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants was a short one, as he played in a mere seven games.
However, in those seven games, Smith was able to show more of what makes him such a special, fun basketball player. He averaged 15.1 PPG, 5.9 APG, and 2.3 RPG in his time with the Mad Ants.
Most of his points in the D-League came at the rim, where he finished at an incredibly high rate. Smith's finishing ability improved a great deal from his junior to senior season in college, and he's continuing to trend in the right direction.
Shooting outside of the restricted area has been problematic so far for Smith, both in the NBA and the NBA D-League. That's not a surprise, seeing as shooting consistency was one of his biggest issues at Louisville. He clearly has the capability to make three-pointers and mid-range jumpers, both in spot-up situations and off the dribble. If he doesn't become more consistent and improve his percentages, though, it will be nearly impossible for him to crack an NBA rotation.
An unabashed gunner, Smith continues to take tough shots with regularity. He sometimes makes them, but most of the time a highly-contested shot is obviously not a good one. His shot selection was one of the main things that earned him the nickname "Russdiculous" from Pitino. He's never had anything resembling a conscience when it comes to shooting, and that's both a gift and a curse.
In his role as the Mad Ants point guard, Smith was a mixed bag. His ball-handling ability is superb, and part of the reason he was able to finish so well at the rim is because of his ability to break down his man and create easier looks for himself. He possesses great hesitation moves, and he changes pace exceptionally well. He's quick and slippery when he finds himself surrounded in the paint by towering bigs, and he will need to be that way to survive in the NBA given his slight frame (6'1", 160).
When it comes to fulfilling his distributing duties, Smith often struggles. He can sometimes get tunnel vision, locking in on the rim, causing him to lose sight of teammates. He hasn't been terrible as a facilitator, as he averaged 5.9 assists per game with the Mad Ants. However, he also averaged 3.0 turnovers per game. Given his propensity for flare and tough passes, it's difficult to envision Smith's turnover numbers ever decreasing much if he continues to serve as the primary ball-handler on whichever team he plays for.
Where Smith has always thrived and will likely continue to thrive is on the defensive end. He gives incredible effort to make up for his slender frame and lack of strength. He is particularly adept at defending the pick and roll, which is no small task in the NBA. He recognizes the ball-screener early, and he is typically able to fight through most picks to recover back onto the ball-handler and keep him from driving.
Smith's quick hands and feet make him a pest to opposing guards. With the Mad Ants, he averaged 1.7 steals per game. He hounds guards before they even cross mid-court, and then he swipes the ball away after completely turning the ball-handler around. He has a lot of Patrick Beverley in him on the defensive end.
It's not completely unreasonable to believe Smith could see court time with the Grizzlies this season as a back of the rotation guy. He played off the ball frequently in college, and his superb ability to create his own shot is intriguing for a team that has lacked such magic for far too long.
If the Grizzlies' plan is to play Smith at point guard, Nick Calathes will likely have to be moved. Otherwise, Smith will likely play out this season with the Iowa Energy in the D-League, which is the likeliest scenario regardless of which position the Grizzlies want Smith to play.
Right now, it's too early to gauge where "Russdiculous" fits into the Grizzlies' plans, if he fits at all. It has been said that the Grizzlies thought highly of Smith in the 2014 NBA draft, so it's tough to envision the organization tossing him aside before seeing what he brings to the table and giving him an opportunity to prove himself. Smith improved exponentially from his junior season in college to his senior season, and now he's shown signs that he is going to continue on that path of improvement in the NBA.
If Smith doesn't pan out with the Grizzlies for whatever reason, it's tough to see him not fitting in somewhere else in the association. The magic he creates with the ball in his hands, his ability to score from anywhere, and his excellent defense will make it tough for him to fall through the cracks.
Despite an uncertain future, one thing we can be certain of is that Russ Smith will likely never change who he fundamentally is on the basketball court, and he shouldn't. All parties are better off with him remaining completely "Russdiculous".