The 6-foot-1 guard is passing on the NBA draft to return for his senior season, aiming to become his family’s first college graduate and also win another title.
Smith’s decision contradicts father Russ Sr.’s declaration after the Cardinals’ NCAA championship win over Michigan that his son would enter the draft. Smith led Louisville (35-5) with 18.7 points per game this season, including 22.3 in the NCAA tournament.
After talking with coach Rick Pitino about his pro prospects, Smith decided Wednesday that his game needed more development. He was an all-Big East Conference first team selection along with 6-10 teammate Gorgui Dieng, who has entered his name in the draft pool.
“I’m happy I finally got it off my chest,” Smith said of his decision. “What was crazy after doing all the pros and cons of staying or going, the pros of staying were so much better than the pros of leaving.
“All my pros I put down for me leaving were very immature. You have to put the work in to get better, you have to do this, you have to do that. Those are challenges I felt like, along with coach, we both felt I’d be running way from, getting better and maturing as a player.”
Smith nonetheless agonized over the decision that seemed set in stone when his father said he had nothing left to prove in college after helping Louisville reach back-to-back Final Fours and earn the school’s first championship since 1986.
Pitino told his player to take a week to think about his decision and savor the school’s third title. Pitino, whose resume’ includes NBA stints coaching the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics, consulted league executives for feedback on Smith’s pro chances.
Their determination had Smith going in the second round on June 27 if he decided to enter the draft. Despite what NBA scouts like about Smith’s game, Pitino believes his stock will improve with 10 more pounds on his 165-pound frame along with improvements in his shot selection and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Besides starting forwards Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear, they return guard/forward Luke Hancock, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Reserves Stephan Van Treese, Montrezl Harrell and Tim Henderson are also back.
Guard Kevin Ware, who provided the rallying point in Louisville’s title run after breaking his right leg in the Midwest Regional final, said he expects to recover by next season.
Center Mangok Mathiang, at 6-10, joins the team after redshirting this season. The Cardinals have also signed 6-8 pivot man Akoy Agau, 6-4 Anton Gill, 5-10 junior college guard Chris Jones, 6-1 guard Terry Rozier and 6-3 David Levitch.