Analysis: Russ Smith still finding his way in NBA with Pelicans

The worst feeling in the world is that of uncertainty. From it blossoms all other negative emotions — fear, anger, anxiety, even depression. It’s abundant in our lives, existing in the minutiae (what am I going to have for dinner?) to the grandiose (graduating from college without a job, your entire livelihood in flux). By contrast, one of the most satisfying sensations in life is the moment in which that uncertainty alleviates.

Russ Smith had such a moment Tuesday, when the New Orleans Pelicans officially announced the former Louisville guard had been signed to a rookie-scaled contract.

The Pelicans acquired Smith in draft-night in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the rights to guard Pierre Jackson.

Smith couldn’t have landed in a more perfect position. Last year, the Pelicans, wracked by injuries, slogged through the regular season without a reliable point guard rotation, often relying on Brian Roberts — not a natural point guard — or Tyreke Evans to run the offense. Smith likely won’t ever be a starter in the NBA, but he can be a serviceable second point guard off the bench.

The former national champion has been one of the best players on the Pelicans’ summer league team, averaging 13 points and, perhaps more importantly for Smith, who needs to show he can capably run an offense, over 7.5 assists per game.

Though Smith isn’t the tallest guard you’ll find — he’s very generously listed at six feet — he doesn’t let his lack of size bother him. If anything, he uses it to his advantage. With his small stature, Smith gets under his opponents, applying relentless pressure on ballhandlers from basket to basket. That tenacity, combined with his good lateral quickness, makes him a defensive pest.

Unfortunately, Smith can’t fully compensate for his size on offense, where he’s struggled to shoot the ball well. This is the first time Smith has encountered NBA length, and it shows.

He can get into the lane, but he struggles to get his shot off over longer defenders. Credit to Smith, however, for at least playing within himself. While Smith greatly improved his shooting at Louisville — he finished his senior year shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc — he was never considered a threat from long range.

In Las Vegas, Smith has attempted only eight 3-pointers, knocking down just two of them. His true shooting percentage, a metric that considers 3-point, two-point and free-throw percentages, is just 41 percent, according to RealGM.com, well below what would be considered an average mark. It’s summer league, so that number should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s still noteworthy for how much Smith has struggled to shoot the ball.

For now, it’s not hurting the team too much, as Courtney Fells seems to have caught fire from the field, but come the regular season, Smith will need to be able to constantly knock down a shot, if for no other reason than to keep defenses honest.

Aside from shooting, Smith’s biggest problem through summer league so far is his consistency. Hist first two games were Jekyll and Hyde performances from half to half. In the first halves of both games, Smith who struggled to get anything going, either as a distributor or a scorer. He finished 0-for-4 from the field or commit four turnovers. The second half, however, was an entirely different story, one that featured Smith playing with much more poise and control.

Consider his performance in the first game against the D-League Select team: Smith was 1-for-7 in the first half, something which coach Bryan Gates attributed at least partially to nerves. It was “Hyde” Smith at his finest.

In the second half, however, “Jekyll” Smith appeared and played nothing like a nervous rookie. He was collected, picking his spots with precision and scoring 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter all while leading the Pelicans to a rousing 21-2 comeback win.

It wasn’t until the third game that Smith put together a consistent, first-through-fourth quarter positive effort, one which resulted in a 13-point, 10-assist double-double. The Pelicans won’t need Smith to produce nightly double-doubles, but they will need that sort of consistent effort out of him if they’re going to rely on him as a back up to Jrue Holiday.

Smith’s bout with uncertainty is now over, at least for the moment. Yet, even with the contract signed, Smith’s work isn’t done. If anything, it’s just beginning. He’s proven he belongs in the league, now he needs to put in the work to stick in it.