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Russ Smith's Debut and the Birth of Russanity

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It was only four minutes, but rookie guard Russ Smith made a splash in his Grizzlies debut against the Oklahoma City Thunder

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First, there was Vinsanity. Then Linsanity took New York and the NBA world by storm, and Hassan Whiteside's Hassanity has been the big surprise of the season.

So who's next?

A little over a week ago in the Grizzlies' February 11th loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, #RUSSANITY was born.

...Okay, so maybe that's a slight overreaction to four solid minutes in garbage time of a blowout loss, but Russ Smith finished with five points, an assist, and a steal in that short stint, and passed the eye test with flying colors along the way. He looked comfortable running the offense, and excelled attacking the basket as he got to the stripe and shot 3-4 at the free throw line in those four short minutes.

The game against OKC was Smith's first chance to get on an NBA court in a Grizzlies uniform since arriving in Memphis from New Orleans as part of the three-team trade that brought Jeff Green to Memphis as well. After the trade, he was assigned to the Iowa Energy of the NBA D-League, where he averaged 18.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists on 50 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from three in nine games.

While Smith did look good in his only bit of action with the Grizzlies, he'll almost definitely be spending the majority of the season developing in the D-League — but that's not to say that Memphis fans don't have anything to be excited about with the rookie point guard.

To start with, Russ Smith is fast. Like, ridiculously fast. He would've had seven points against the Thunder if a JaMychal Green basket interference call didn't nullify this fast break layup, and he made the break look easy, leaving everybody else on the floor in the dust.

Smith excels in transition and when attacking the basket, and has a knack for working his way to the free throw line when driving to the hole. He shot four free throws in four minutes against OKC, and in 16 D-League games with the Iowa Energy and Fort Wayne Mad Ants, he attempted 7.6 foul shots per 36 minutes. He's shifty with the ball in both the open floor and in pick-and-roll situations, and is able to use his speed to get to the line like he did on this play in Oklahoma City.


Smith starts out by calling for the pick, deferring to the left, and then crossing back over the top of the screen to shake his defender.


After Russ dribbles around the screen, his original defender, Ish Smith, has fallen behind the play. Russ now only has to worry about the hedging Mitch McGary, who he's able to lose relatively easily with a hesitation dribble.


With both Smith and McGary behind him, Russ drives in for the open layup. McGary attempts to block the shot from behind, but goes over the back and commits the foul in the process.

While Smith has been able to easily get to the free throw line, knocking the shots down has been another story. In D-League play he's shooting only 66 percent from the free throw line, compared to 76 percent over his four-year college career at Louisville. Smith probably needs to get that number up at least to where it was in college, and with only 93 free throw attempts in the D-League it's certainly possible that it could just be a matter of sample size.

Another of Smith's strengths is his play on the defensive end of the floor. He built a reputation as a tenacious defender in his four years at Louisville, and he's had a relatively smooth transition to the NBA game in that regard. His steal numbers are down from 1.93 per game in college to 1.56 in the D-League, but he still has the ability to lock up opposing guards and force them into bad shots, such as here against Ish Smith:

He's a very good defender on the ball, and his potential on that end is only limited by his size. Smith stands at only six feet tall and 165 pounds, and could face problems against more physical guards that could attempt to post him up down low.

One of Smith's more prominent weaknesses is his outside shooting, which was suspect in college and hasn't been better in a small sample size at the NBA level. Smith shot 34 percent from three in his career at Louisville and improved to 39 percent in his senior year, but has made only 1-of-6 shots from downtown in the NBA and 28 percent in the D-League.

He's been ineffective as a spot up shooter, and some of his misses haven't even been close.

Smith is already a solid player on both the offensive and defensive end, but spot up shooting is one area where he needs to see drastic improvement. He doesn't have to become some kind of amazing 40 percent three-point shooter, but he needs to at least be able to knock it down when open, thereby forcing defenses to guard him outside the arc, spreading the floor and opening up space.

A common criticism of Smith in college was his poor assist-to-turnover ratio. He averaged 2.8 assists to 2.4 turnovers for his career, and improved to 4.6 assists to 2.8 turnovers his senior season. In D-League play he hasn't shown much improvement in this area, averaging 3.9 dimes to 2.7 turnovers, which still leaves the question of whether he's really a point guard or more of a Jason Terry type combo guard on the table.

And while he doesn't post huge assist numbers, he's still capable of making some nice passes, particularly in the pick-and-roll.

Russ Smith can certainly play. That being said, it's doubtful he'll make much of an impact for the Grizzlies this season, especially considering their depth at the point guard position. He should spend the rest of the season with the Iowa Energy, and if he continues to improve his game then a door could potentially open for him as soon as next season with the possibility of Nick Calathes returning overseas to make more money, as he tried to do in the 2014 offseason.