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Scoring Sensation Russ Smith's Message to NBA Doubters: 'I for Damn Sure Belong'

It's around 11 p.m. in China when Russ Smith answers the phone. His team, Luoyang, of China's National Basketball League, had a game earlier in the evening in Beijing, and he only recently returned to his hotel room.

He's tired and wondering whether to join some teammates at a hookah lounge to celebrate one of their birthdays. He's still getting used to life in China and hasn't gone out with them yet. Instead, he's been spending most of his off time in his room toggling between game film, TV and movies.

Russ Smith. Sergio Hentschel/Getty Images
Also, he's a bit frustrated over how he played.

"They were sending like two or three guys at me every time I got the ball," Smith says when asked how he played. "I definitely lowered my scoring average. I did manage to squeeze out 46, though."

He's not joking.

Entering the contest, his sixth in China, Smith had been averaging 61.0 points per game (that number has since dropped to 57.7 over 11 games, per Asia-Basket.com). The former Louisville star dropped 62 in his NBL debut. He followed that up with a 42-point performance in what must have been an off day. Then 56, 64 and a video game-like 81 (including 10-of-17 from downtown).

For Smith, the 6'0", 26-year-old Brooklyn native and former second-round pick, China has become the land of opportunity. Shunned by the NBA and then rejected by a headstrong coach in Turkey, Smith decided to head east to rediscover the approach that once transformed him into one of college basketball's most captivating players.

"I wanted to try something different. I got a great opportunity here, so I'm just trying to seize the moment," he says. "I'm completely locked in here; it's been dope."

Smith, though, has never been one for cliched "humble athlete talk," and so he adds: "I don't believe there are 400 guys in that league better than me. You want to name like 150? Fine. Maybe I'm not a rotation guy. I'll practice, show up to every game in a suit and cheer on my teammates.

"But I for damn sure belong on an NBA roster."

Smith, who led Louisville to a national championship in 2013 and was a first-team All-American the following year, was originally drafted 47th overall in 2014 by the Philadelphia 76ers.

He spent that season and the next being shuttled back and forth between the NBA (where he appeared in 27 games for the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies) and its Development League. Never given much of a shot in the NBA, he looked to the then-named D-League as a place to best show he belonged.

Smith averaged 28 points and eight assists over the course of 22 games in the 2015-16 season. He scored a still-record 65 points in a game for the Delaware 87ers that March. Yet the NBA never came calling.

"I felt like I outperformed everybody, but the phone wasn't ringing the way it was supposed to be," Smith says. "I figured they forgot about me."

So he decided to change things up. He accepted a deal—worth $1 million, he says—to play for Turkey's Galatasaray Odeabank. Smith thought he was supposed to be the club's star. Instead, he was held to just nine minutes a game.

He claims Galatasaray's coach, Ergin Ataman, would send him away from the team for days and weeks at a time without explanation. That culminated with an October press conference in which Ataman blamed Smith for his team's struggles.

"We are playing without a point guard because our main point guard is playing terrible, unfortunately," he told reporters. "He gave us nothing in these five games, and also tonight I put him on the court during the last minute. If he gave us something then we'd have a chance to win the game. I'm talking about Russ Smith."

Smith's counter: It's silly to blame someone seeing only nine minutes per game for a team's mishaps. He also believes Galatasaray planted negative stories—such as his missing curfew or refusing to take a drug test—in an attempt to void his contract.

He says this all in an easy, humorous tone. There's no bitterness in his voice, no anger pent up inside or urge to lash out at his former team or coach.

"Looking back, that was the most important time of my life," Smith says. "It got me to the point where I had to ask, 'What am I playing for?' and realize again how lucky I am to be playing this game."

He tried to give the D-League one more go and garnered a summer-league invitation from the Portland Trail Blazers, only to be cut loose once again. The blow hurt. He was down and for a moment even considered taking a year off.

"Just spend time with my girl, family, friends; be low-key," he says.

Source: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2721310-scoring-sensation-russ-smiths-message-to-nba-doubters-i-for-damn-sure-belong

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