When Russ Smith prepares for his first day of work this summer he'll put on a pair of gym shoes, not wingtips. He'll slip on a pair of shorts and a jersey, not slacks and a button down. He'll have a basketball in his hand, not a briefcase, and he'll be making jumpers and delivering passes, not making phone calls and delivering mail.
Smith will play professional basketball for an NBA team, but to the Louisville point guard it's still a business all the same.
"This is a job opportunity," Smith said at last month's NBA Combine. "I want to show them I can work and be an employee."
If the NBA is Smith's first job, his "internship" at Louisville went about as well as expected.
All the 6-foot point guard did in his four years with the Cardinals was lead his team to a national championship as a junior, earn All-American honors as a senior and become the program's fifth leading scorer all-time with more than 1,900 points. But more importantly, something that won't necessarily show up in a box score, Smith became more of a team leader and better distributor after opting to return for his fourth and final season.
As a junior it was his scoring that helped lead the top-seeded Cardinals to the promised land. "Russdiculous" averaged 25 points through the tournament's first five games, and though he shot just 3-for-16 in the national championship game he managed five points and an assist in the second half as the Cardinals overcame a halftime deficit to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
He would have entered the 2013 NBA Draft with plenty of momentum, but he made the decision to come back to Rick Pitino's group for one final season to show off a different skill set.
As a junior, Smith's season-high in assists was six; he accomplished that feet eight different times as a senior, including double-digit efforts in three of those contests. His assist rate jumped from 21.1 percent (352nd in the country) to 31.6 percent (52nd) and his assists per game improved from 2.9 to 4.6, all the while doing so with less talent after star forward Chane Behanan was kicked off the team in December.
Many prospects produced different skill sets this past season, but Smith's passing acumen wasn't new; he just got a chance to show it.
"I always knew I could (pass). I just had to prove it," he said. "It’s like, a guy will never hire you if he doesn’t see a track record, no matter if you tell him you’re good. You have to show it, and this year, certain games I just said, ‘Hey, get my teammates involved. I’m going to get 10 assists today. Get 13 assists today.’ And this year it was really easy for me. I was able to kind of pick and choose what I wanted to do as a player, but also play hard and play within the team concept. And we won a lot of games this year."
The 31-win Cardinals advanced to the Sweet 16 before being ousted by a red-hot Kentucky team that advanced to the Final Four, and Smith led the way with a newfound passing effort, as well as continued progress in his scoring. His points per game (18.2) stayed the same while he improved his field goal percentage by more than five points, his 3-point percentage by nearly six points and kept his stout defense by averaging 2.0 steals per game.
Were Smith closer to 6-foot-2 like projected first-round pick Tyler Ennis or 6-foot-4 Elfrid Payton, he'd undoubtedly hear his name called among the top 30 picks. But his diminutive stature - according to ESPN, just 17 players listed 6-foot or shorter saw action in 2013 - will make it difficult for him to compete at the next level. That's something he isn't worried about as he readies himself for his next job opportunity.
"Organizations take who they take. They want to draft on potential, so be it. If a guy has a longer wingspan than me, OK. A guy is 6-4, 6-5, OK. I play basketball," he said. "I don’t do metrics. So if they draft metrics, that’s them. I have numbers and I’m a basketball player, so it’s beyond my control. I don’t take anything personal."
The selection process is beyond his control, but a team will take a chance on Smith. He was able to show off his colorful personality during interviews, and he's confident he can sell himself to his future employer.
"Just prove that I’m good in the locker room, I’m good with the guys and I’m a team player," said Smith, referring to his interviews. "That’s what it’s about. I’m a basketball player and person, so when I show those two and I have no off-the-court issues, that’s the kind of guy you want to hire."