NCAA Basketball

Chris Smith: Ex-Cardinal a Testament to Rick Pitino as Coach

Chris Smith is fortunate.

Not as much for being the kid brother of NBA player J.R. Smith, though, as for having the opportunity to be coached by Rick Pitino. Without Pitino’s acceptance of Smith, a transfer from Manhattan College, the potential NBA player would have had to settle for a professional career overseas out of college.

Now, according to Marc Berman, it appears that Smith has a real chance to make the New York Knicks’ roster after being signed by the team on Aug. 1.

But if Smith hadn’t elected to transfer from the abyss of obscurity that Manhattan had fallen into under Barry Rohrssen, he would not have developed into the ballplayer he is today. Rohrssen allowed Smith’s ego to bloat, failing to monitor the young kid who emitted an aura of superciliousness. I attended most Manhattan home games during my high school days, which coincided with Smith’s two years under Rohrssen. Before every game, Smith was wont to keep shooting — all the way to halfcourt — as his team huddled before the national anthem. His play and attitude during the games also suggested he cared more about his numbers than the team, which, admittedly, was not too good.

When Smith bolted for Lousiville after his sophomore year, we all thought he was crazy. At least I did, and I doubt anyone who watched as many Manhattan games as I did would disagree.

Here’s what I wrote at Bleacher Report when rumors indicated Smith would head to Louisville:

“There is a rumor that Smith is leaning towards transferring to Louisville. I can’t imagine this rumor being true because Rick Pitino does not tolerate players who don’t demonstrate a defensive presence.

Smith is always so concerned with himself that he forgets about playing defense. His attitude changed towards the end of the season, when he realized that playing defense leads to wins, but nonetheless, his defense was far from the level that Pitino demands.

Forget defense, though.

Smith’s offense, his strength, is not close to Big East level. His season high in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference game was a meager 19 points—a MAAC scorer who plans on transferring to the Big East needs to show that he can dominate his league, consistently pouring in over 20 points against the mediocre competition.

Smith is making a mistake. He’s simply not good enough to play at a level much higher than the MAAC.”

And, now, Smith, with Pitino’s help, makes me look like a fool. Pitino clearly saw a player capable of defending at a high level and contributing points when needed, and he worked with Smith, turning him into that player.

Of course I didn’t watch Smith nearly as much after he transferred, but I made sure to tune in every time the Cardinals appeared on television. The transformation he underwent under Pitino’s influence was evident, even on the tube. Though Smith’s basketball IQ didn’t rise tremendously — he still occasionally took ill-advised shots at inopportune moments — his attitude was clearly different. You would have needed to be a world-class photographer to snap this article’s photo during Smith’s Manhattan days. While at Louisville, however, Smith could be seen cheering from the bench regularly. He espoused his role on a deep Louisville team, coming back to earth and realizing hard work — not younger-brother status — would lead him to new heights and eventually, hopefully, the NBA.

I never thought I’d see the day that an NBA team’s beat writer would say Chris Smith’s defense could earn him a spot on a roster — granted, it is the Knicks, who don’t have the best reputation when it comes to roster decisions. And while I was ultimately wrong about Smith’s potential, I stand firm that he would not have achieved that potential without Pitino.

Say what you want about Pitino’s issues off the court, but the case of Chris Smith is proof to me that Rick Pitino is one of the game’s best coaches.


Follow Ari Kramer on Twitter to talk Big East and college basketball.