Amid the stifling heat of the Chinese summer, Russ Smith is balling out to an unprecedented degree. With the National Basketball League (NBL) season in its early stages, the former Louisville guard is carving up defenses to the tune of 61 points per game for Luoyang. When Smith scored a league record 81 points against a previously unbeaten Henan side, one Chinese journalist quipped that the player was possessed by the spirit of Kobe Bryant.
A semi-autonomous summer league, the NBL has become known for triple-digit score lines. Because China's best local players play in the CBA (the country's biggest basketball league), NBL teams rely on foreigners to generate most of their offense.
Americans have started off hot in the NBL before, but Smith has already eclipsed all of the previous records. Only twice since arriving in China has he scored less than 60 points.
Such exploits have also made him a star in Luoyang, a city in central China with a population of roughly 6.5 million people as of a 2010 census. Local message boards are filled with photos of Smith and smiling local fans. When someone suggested the American couldn't be that good if he was in the NBL, another poster immediately rebuked him and pointed out that Smith was the starting point guard on the 2013 NCAA championship team. It's doubtful anyone in Luoyang genuinely cares for Louisville basketball, but talk shit about Smith, and someone will respond.
"The best part is that I am needed and wanted on this team," he said via text message from China. "I'm just happy I get to show the world that Russ Smith still has it."
Luoyang is only in its second season of existence and has a roster that could be generously described as threadbare, so it's possible Smith keeps up his torrid pace. In his 81-point game, a 142-130 win over Henan, the bench contributed just seven points.
Luoyang's solution has been to give their star guard the greenest light in world basketball, meaning Smith currently averages 45 minutes and 41 shots a game. To prepare his body for the extra workload, Smith says he is having extra gym sessions and massages twice a day. After that, there's hours in the film room to figure out where the double teams will come from.
But with the additional challenges has come a surge in self-belief. "He thinks he can go for 100" says his agent, Adam Pensack. "He was mad he only went for 11 points in the second quarter [against Henan]. He thought he was going to get at least 90 [by the end of the game]."
A two-time All-American at Louisville, Smith was selected in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft and played for the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies as well as in the D-League and in Turkey before landing in China. He says he wants to close out his time in the NBL with a postseason run, but he's also upfront about his future aspirations: "I'm playing the best basketball of my life. I know I can help an NBA team."