Russ Smith will forever be considered a legend at Louisville due to his contributions on the hardwood. As a matter of fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s the best player to suit up for the program over the last decade.
Smith didn’t make an immediate impact at the collegiate level. During the 2010-11 season, he only appeared in 17 games and averaged 5.6 minutes per contest. However, his role quickly changed after his freshman season.
Despite not being a starter as a sophomore, Smith averaged 11.5 points and 2.2 steals per game for the Cardinals. His energy on the court was exactly what Rick Pitino’s second unit needed.
It wasn’t until his junior season when he finally received a spot in the starting lineup. The New York native didn’t disappoint, averaging 18.7 points and 2.9 assists per game. Louisville ended up winning the national championship during the 2012-13 season in large part because of its backcourt pairing in Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
Louisville lost most of its championship roster to the NBA Draft, but Smith returned for senior season. It didn’t end with him cutting down the nets again during the NCAA Tournament though. Nonetheless, the talented guard averaged 18.2 points and a career-high 4.6 assists per game.
We sat down with Smith to talk about his incredible career at Louisville, international career, thoughts on Coach Pitino heading to Iona and much more. Let’s get this interview started.
TheSpun: First off, how's everything been and how have you been spending your time during this quarantine period?
Russ Smith: For one, I have access to my own personal gym, so I manage to stay in shape there by doing a lot of running and calisthenics. I have a couple of close friends with full-size courts, which allows me to get workouts in and put up some shots. I'm also using this time to catch up in my studies and outside ventures, such as real estate and music. The best thing you can do is keep yourself busy while staying safe.
TheSpun: You've been successful at the international level. As for your time in the NBA, what do you think is the main reason why your stint wasn't as long as you wanted it to be?
RS: Personally, when that time came for me to go overseas -and remind you, I'm an emotional person that reacts off impulses - I feel like I left early. There were a lot of different elements around that time period, and I just wanted to play basketball and be happy then. But now, I'm in a more mature place. As far as why I didn't stick around, I think it's my own doing. I decided to go to Turkey, and then play in China. I didn't do that because it was the easy or right thing to do, but I just felt like I was happy over there and it made me happy that I was accepted. I felt like the NBA wasn't accepting of my game and style. Like I said, I'm more mature now and understand where I'm at as a basketball player. I've matured and I'm a hundred times better than I was before in that aspect.
The Spun: When did you realize at Louisville that you were going to play a huge role on the team?
RS: At the beginning, I was riding on the coattails of my teammates. Gorgui Dieng used to help me a lot, he was one of the smartest guys I ever played with. Peyton Siva was always in my corner. Luke Hancock was an excellent leader as well. And then you had Coach Pitino doing his best to develop me into a professional player. I came into Louisville not knowing that I was going to be a pro when I eventually left. For a coach to take me under his wing and help me develop, it was probably the biggest steps of my career. After Louisville, everything just all happened so fast. And I don't think I was ready for the big stage, mentally speaking. I was there talent wise, but mentally I wasn't. That's why I told you before I just feel a lot more mature as a player.
The Spun: Did you ever consider any other school besides Louisville during your recruitment?
RS: High school was rough for me because I was always undersized. I had no offers coming out of high school even though I led New York City in scoring two years in a row. Then I went to prep school at South Kent, which helped build my interest from Division I programs. I got to play against high-level athletes like Jesse Morgan and Nik Stauskas. My dad and Coach Pitino had a decent relationship when I was a camper at Louisville, so they already knew me. I just felt like it was a great honor to get a scholarship from the University of Louisville. I felt like it was the highest level. Even if I didn't get much playing time, I would've been under the guidance of Coach Pitino, so I thought it was a no-brainer decision to go there.
The Spun: What do you make of Rick Pitino going to Iona, and how do you think he'll fare there?
RS: Coach Pitino is in an extremely happy place right now. He’s still a great friend of mine, we talk four times a week. I think he’s happy, which is the most important thing. One thing about Coach Pitino is that you know his teams are going to compete and that his kids will be well prepared for the future. I believe he’s going to fare well. As far as the space he’s in right now, he’s happy doing what he loves to do at the collegiate level.
The Spun: Do you think he’d consider moving to another program if he’s highly successful at Iona?
RS: Honestly, in my opinion it’s going to take a lot for him to leave Iona. He’s a New Yorker, he’s basically home now and he’s at a notable mid-major program. It’s going to be hard seeing him leave unless it’s the absolute right fit. The program has to be right – everything has to be right. If I was a betting man, I would say maybe he stays at Iona for some time before he decides to move.
TheSpun: Which teams over the course of your collegiate career gave you the most trouble?
RS: Wow, that's tough. When we used to play against Memphis, they had a bunch of guards that could match up against us. So, I'd say Memphis and I'd have to also say Kentucky. You knew what you'd be in for when you play a rivalry game like Louisville-Kentucky.
The Spun: Louisville's championship team during the 2012-13 season was loaded with talent. Where should it rank among the top teams from this past decade?
RS: We were the best team from that decade, I don't think there's any question about it. We had every element and piece you needed in order to succeed. Our backcourt was arguably the best in the history of college basketball with Peyton Siva and myself. Our small forward tandem with Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock was excellent, and then we had Gorgui Dieng and Montrezl Harrell inside the paint. It'd be tough to find a team that can match our leadership qualities and overall skill. We also defended at a high level, we got steals at a solid clip and we shot the triple well. As far as decades go, you might have to compare us to teams from the last two or three decades. I really believe we were that good.
TheSpun: Since you're from Archbishop Molloy, I got to ask you about Cole Anthony. What do you think he needs to focus on heading into the NBA?
RS: Cole is a good friend of mine. I think his biggest thing is going to be patience and playing under control. The NBA is all about opportunity. Once you get to play, you really get in a groove and get a feel for what you can and cannot do. Any exceptional athlete will do well in the NBA, and Cole is one of those guys who's very athletic and plays hard every night. I think he can excel in today's game, especially with the fast pace. His dad was a professional and an experienced guard, so Cole has great guidance there.
The Spun: What's one moment with Rick Pitino that you remember from your time at Louisville?
RS: Yeah, I remember we played a five overtime game against Notre Dame during our championship year. I was hard on myself after the game and ended up going into a slump. Coach Pitino went up to me and said "You can't worry about what's going on outside, you have to worry about the team. I still believe in you and I want you to keep shooting, but you should always make one or two passes before taking the last shot." The following year we played Cincinnati, and I penetrated and made a pass to Terry Rozier, who then kicked it back to me for the game-winning shot. I wouldn't have made that play the year before. Coach Pitino was very understanding of what I was going through and for that I will always thank him.
The Spun: If you were a student-athlete at this time and didn't get to play in the NCAA Tournament because it was canceled, how would you want the NCAA to handle players' eligibility?
RS: That's a great question. If I was the NCAA, I would allow seniors the ability to come back and potentially play again. That option would be open if I was in charge. What they're doing with the transfer portal might be an effect of what's going on. I don't think it's a bad idea, but kids need to be smart about where they're going. There really isn't much we can do right now, it's a bad situation. Even me as a professional, I was just getting started before they shut the whole season down. Kids have to stay in shape, work hard and realize there are no shortcuts to this. This is real life. I feel like a lot of these student-athletes should come back to school and get another year in. They don't even have a resume yet, and I feel for them right now. I just hope this all gets settled and kids make the right decisions for their future.
The Spun: Last question for you. What can we expect from your professional career in the next year or so?
RS: I'm going to be on an NBA roster. I'm putting in the work to do that and I'm going to do this the right way. I'll be patient and go after what I deserve. I have no other alternatives or goals. I've said it before, but I'm a lot more mature and I understand the game on a much higher level than I ever have. Russ Smith will be on an NBA roster. It's do-or-die at this point.
Smith’s initial stint in the NBA didn’t go as well as he may have hoped, but it’s very clear the desire to get back to that level of competition is still there.
During the 2017-18 CBA season, Smith averaged 33.6 points per game for the Fujian Sturgeons. His best performance at the international level came in July of 2017, when he dropped 81 points on 25-of-43 shooting. There is no question that he possesses the skill to score from anywhere on the court.
We'll find out soon enough if Smith's new outlook on his career will catapult him back into the NBA. No matter what country he chooses to play basketball in, the legend of “Russdiculous” will continue to live on.
You can read more of our interviews with athletes or media stars here.