Defensive Strategies: Russ Smith, Louisville
This series will provide strategies on how defenses can best guard, or attempt to guard, some of the most dangerous offensive players and actions. Today’s post will try to show how collegiate defenses can slow down the offense of Russ Smith of Louisville.
Russ Smith took a major leap forward on the offensive end in his junior season, increasing his points per game from 11.5 to 18.7, while increasing his two point field goal percentage from 38% to 45.8% and his three point field goal percentage slightly from 30% to 32.8%. He was a key member of the Louisville national champion team and will be one of the leaders as they try to defend the title. With the departure of backcourt mate Peyton Siva, it will be interesting to see how Smith’s role changes but the one thing that is certain is that teams are going to struggle to defend him.
These strategies won’t turn Smith into a poor offensive player or stop him from having any effect on the game, however, they can provide a starting point for what defenses should focus on to slow Smith down. This isn’t an exhaustive list for defenses but hopefully it will show some building blocks for how they can make life difficult on the offensive end for Smith.
Run players at him in transition
Smith is one of the quickest players in the country with the ball, which makes him deadly in transition. Transition opportunities were where he derived most of his offense last season as Louisville ranked as the 5th fastest team on offense, according to Kenpom.com. When Smith gets the ball in the open court, he is nearly impossible to keep up with and he is able to blow past defenders on the way to the rim.
To slow down Smith, defenses need to run multiple players at him as quickly as possible once the transition opportunity materializes. Although Smith became a much more controlled player his junior season, he can still be susceptible to turnovers or rushed shots when he gets moving too fast. Flooding him with defenders could leave the defense exposed elsewhere but teams could find some success in getting the ball out of Smith’s hand in transition and forcing his teammates to beat them in this facet.
The following clips from the NCAA tournament begin to show how defenses can execute this strategy. In the first clip, after Smith picks up the loose ball, Trey Burke immediately attempts to cut him off instead of giving him a little bit of space in midcourt before taking a harder approach once Smith gets closer to the three point line. Nik Stauskas then runs toward Smith and helps finish off the turnover.
Smith is going to get his opportunities in transition but running multiple players toward him and getting a wild shot or turnover would be an ideal outcome for the defense. However, Smith has shown he has much more control over himself at high speed, which is why he is so good in transition. Therefore, even forcing him to give up the ball to a teammate would be a favorable outcome, as defenses would likely find more success defending the rest of the Cardinals rather than the ultra quick Smith in transition.
Contest jump shots
Due to his small stature, as Smith is measured at only 6 feet, defenses can force Smith to alter his jump shots by contesting them with bigger defenders. This is where defenses have to be smart though because Smith is already a poor outside shooter, as he made only 30% of his long distance shots last season. Defenses may lean toward sagging off him at the three point line and taking away dribble penetration.
However, if Smith shows marked improvement in his perimeter shooting, defenses could begin to have their defenders run hard at Smith when he catches at the three point line and challenge the three point shot, even at the expense of giving up dribble penetration. As illustrated in the clips below, bigger defenders can bother Smith and make these shots tough for Smith to convert.
Smith is a decent finisher at the rim, shooting 65% according to hoop-math, so defenses might be hesitant to take a defender out of the play by having them fly at Smith, allowing Smith to drive past them if he sees the defender coming early. If Smith shows better range, defenses will need to contest these jump shots, which could slow Smith’s ability to covert these attempts.
Force him left
Smith didn’t penetrate off the dribble in the halfcourt very often last year but when he did, he struggled going to his left. Defenses can shade him this way to try to force him to the left but he is often quick enough to crossover back to his right if defenses over commit. Smith may be forced to create more in the half court now that Peyton Siva has moved on and he was not at his best driving to his left.
It’s completely possible that these struggles are a result of a small sample size and Smith would do better over more possessions when driving to his left. Until he shows that he is comfortable penetrating with his weaker hand, defenses should attempt to force him that way, especially when there is help defenders or the sideline further slowing down Smith.
With Louisville’s current roster, I would not be surprised to see Smith increase his point production for the third straight season and shredding defenses on a nightly basis. It won’t be easy, but these strategies can provide a starting block for defenses to slow down Smith and make getting his points difficult.