Iona Rick Pitino, Russ Smith
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

If there was ever a recruiting class that shows what Rick Pitino can bring to Iona, it’s Louisville’s championship-winning 2010 class.

Danny Small

There was no keeping Rick Pitino away from college basketball forever. The enigmatic head coach left the college ranks unceremoniously, but he’s back for a redemption story. And like the prodigal son, he’s returning to the New York area—Iona College in New Rochelle, NY to be exact.

Iona went for the splashy hire after long-time head coach Tim Cluess stepped down for health reasons. Pitino is an absolute master at in-game coaching and strategy, but his ability to develop players might be his best quality.

He’s a strong recruiter, but he’s going to have a tougher time attracting blue-chip recruits to Iona than he did at Louisville or Kentucky. Luckily for the Gaels, Pitino has a solid track at finding diamonds in the rough and developing those guys into star college players.

For evidence of Pitino’s player development chops, let’s look at Louisville’s 2010 recruiting class which was ranked 68th by 247Sports. Gorgui Dieng was a big-time recruit who saw his game steadily improve under Pitino. On the other hand, Russ Smith was a somewhat overlooked recruit who finished his career as one of the best players in all of college basketball.

Gorgui Dieng (4-Star Recruit)

Gorgui Dieng arrived in Louisville with some expectations. The center was the No. 42 recruit in the country, seventh at his position, and first in the state of West Virginia. For Pitino, Dieng was a massive recruit in every sense of the word.

Although Dieng wasn’t a one-and-done like so many highly-ranked recruits are now, the NBA was always possible for him given his size and athleticism. During his three-year run with Pitino, he emerged as one of the most feared shot blockers in the country, eventually winning the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.

Dieng’s success at the next level is another feather in Pitino’s cap. The center is in his seventh year in the NBA and although he never developed into a star, he’s a rotational player in the league. Few college players ever get a chance to play in the NBA, let alone stick around for seven years.

Pitino is capable of helping a talented player make it to the next level.

And oh yeah, Dieng was a crucial part of Louisville’s 2013 National Championship. Technically, that title was vacated, but we all saw the game. It happened, but according to the NCAA it “didn’t happen.”

Russ Smith (3-Star Recruit)

Russ Smith was the other recruit from Louisville’s 2010 class. Much like Dieng, he played a major factor in the team’s title run and he’s another example of Pitino’s ability to develop players.

The overlooked prospect flourished after linking up with Pitino. The three-star recruit was ranked 282nd in the country and although he had significant interest from schools like Baylor and Arizona, he wasn’t exactly a blue-chipper coming out of high school.

But after four years at Louisville, Smith developed into a consensus AP All-American and a second-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The dynamic guard was always talented, but his progression over four years with Pitino is eye-opening.

His freshman year was stunted by inconsistent play and injuries, but he would be ready for a significant role by his sophomore season. Smith averaged 11.5 points and 1.9 assists per game on 35.6% from the field and 30.9% from three.

Those shooting percentages improved dramatically over the next two years, climbing all the way to 46.8% from the field and 38.9% from three during his senior season. Not only that but his assists per jumped all the way up to 4.6 per game during his All-American year.

Smith had gone from a streaky shooter to an efficient offensive player with the ability to create for himself and others. He’s exactly the type of player Pitino will need to recruit if he’s going to take Iona to the next level.

Final Thoughts

In a perfect world, Pitino will be able to recruit the best of the best—like Gorgui Dieng—to Iona. However, it’s far more likely that Pitino will be able to snag the Russ Smith type recruits—talented, yet somewhat overlooked guys. His track record of success should help on the recruiting trail.

It’s also worth noting that Smith hails from Brooklyn, NY. If Pitino can manage to keep some of the talent in New York City here in the Empire State, that could go a long way towards giving Iona an edge on the rest of the MAAC.

Will Pitino be around long enough to develop any recruits for four years straight? He says he plans on finishing his career with Iona, but that’s a topic for a different day. For now, the Gaels can rest easy knowing they have one of the best coaches in college basketball history.

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