Marcus Smart: Boston Celtics Rookie Report

Marcus Smart is confident and brash; his will and determination make him an ideal candidate to serve as a leader of men.

The Boston Celtics’ rookie guard could have easily been wearing the Orlando Magic blue, though, instead of the Irish green, as hordes of pundits thought Smart should have entered the 2013 NBA Draft.

Coming off a banner freshman season, averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game en route to winning the Big 12 Player of the Year award, most mock drafts had predicted the stocky lead guard to go within the top two picks.

However, citing his history as a winner — most notably, winning back-to-back state titles in high school — as vindication for his decision, Smart aimed to bring a national championship to Oklahoma State.

His sophomore campaign, however, would not receive nearly the praise and recognition he had hoped when he elected to delay his journey to the NBA.

Chiefly, critics cited his lack of improvement as a shooter as a red flag in his development curve.

Smart’s anemic shooting percentages across the board — namely, 41.3 percent from the field, 29.5 percent from beyond the arc, and an eFG% (effective field goal percentage) of 47.0 percent over his two seasons at Oklahoma State, per Sports-Reference — were a product of his ill-advised shot selection.

His constant flopping and erratic temperament also became causes for concern. It certainly did not help Smart’s depicted reputation when he shoved a fan in the stands after a verbal altercation during the waning minutes of their game at Texas Tech last year.

The incident drew a cavalcade of unwanted media attention, and curated an image of mental instability associated with Smart’s character — which had been one of his perceived “strengths” just a year prior.

Accordingly, his college career would come the an abrupt end — despite a valiant effort from Smart, putting up 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals in what would be his final game as a Cowboy — during the second round of the NCAA tournament, when Oklahoma State fell in defeat to the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

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While, predictably, Smart’s game was over-analyzed and picked apart during his second season in Stillwater, Okla., the fiery floor general also showed plenty of optimistic improvements.

Specifically, although his poor shooting numbers soured the national media, his scoring efficiency soared incrementally during his sophomore campaign. In fact, Smart had concurrently raised his TS% (true shooting percentage), eFG%, 3-point percentage, and field goal percentage from year one to year two.

Most encouragingly, Smart was an absolute beast when attacking the tin, converting on over 57 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim in half court situations, per Draft Express — an exceptional mark for a guard — and sporting a jaw-dropping free throw rate of 0.648.

To put that into context, James Harden produced a free throw rate of 0,597 as a sophomore at Arizona State, per Sports-Reference.

Additionally, Smart raised his assist rate while lowering his turnover percentage during his second collegiate season, while his usage rate also experienced a slight bump — all positive trends for a developing point guard.

His defensive prowess, on the other hand, was never in question. Smart is a gargantuan point guard blessed with fast-twitch lateral quickness capable of smothering opposing ballhandlers with his determination and aggressiveness.

His running back-like build also allows Smart to defend long ultra-athletic wings — a la Andrew Wiggins –by bodying up his lanky counterparts and giving them no air space to maneuver.

For such reasons, in spite of his perceived “character” issues, Smart remained as one of the most highly-touted prospects of the 2014 draft.

However, unlike the draft prior, the class of 2014 was highly anticipated and laden with top-tier talent; billed as the best draft in over a decade — spearheaded by fresh-faced freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, and Julius Randle, along with the international man of mystery, Dante Exum (see his rookie report here).

Where Smart would have headlined the 2013 draft, he quickly became a mere side story 365 days later.

Nevertheless, after a string of impressive workouts and solid showing at the NBA Draft Combine — measuring at a full 6-foot-3 in shoes, equipped with a freakish 6-foot-9 wingspan and an 8-foot-3 standing reach, as well as weighing in at a sturdy 227 pounds — the Boston Celtics ended up selecting Smart with the sixth pick overall on draft night.

The pick was met with the approval of many Celtics fans as Smart’s performance as a collegiate player ranked him as a consensus top-three prospect in various analytically-based draft projection models, thanks in large part to his insane steal percentage and aforementioned free throw rate.

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As we approach the final two months of the NBA regular season, Smart has successfully built a sizable amount of goodwill with the Celtics brass.

In particular, he has seamlessly eliminated many of the bad habits that plagued him in college — most notably, his questionable shot selection.

At first glance, many who followed the draft closely are surprised to see Smart’s drastic improvement as a 3-point shooter. However, his mundane shooting numbers as a Cowboy was more of a derivative of his role within the offense and not an actual indicator of his shooting proficiency.

When breaking down his situational shooting splits at Oklahoma State, one would find that Smart was actually an accomplished catch-and-shoot artist. In fact, according to Draft Express, Smart made 45.7 percent of his spot-up jumpers; and in contrast, only converted on 20.4 percent of his contested Js during his days wearing the orange and black.

As a testament to his newfound dedication for judicious play, 46.2 percent of Smart’s 4.0 3-point attempts per game come directly off of the catch, where he makes approximately 38.8 percent of his attempts in said situations. Along the same vein, over 49.0 percent of his 3-point attempts are taken with no defenders within four feet of him, per NBA.com’s SportVU Data.

At present, according to Basketball-Reference, Smart is ranked sixth among rookies receiving rotational minutes in 3-point percentage, at 32.9 percent.

A large contingent of Boston faithful’s, though, feels Smart has taken his overtly heady play a little too far.

For the most part, Smart has done everything coach Brad Stevens has asked of him — harassing opposing ballhandlers on defense and conservatively making the right play on offense.

Smart has, most often times, made a concerted effort to play within Boston’s motion offense; initiating side to side ball movement, making the extra swing pass, and driving-and-kicking — a radical contrast in style when compared to his days as a collegiate player, when Smart had the propensity to bulldoze his way through a sea of defenders.

Alternatively, his acrobatic forays towards the rim — the distinct offensive skill Smart was known for at Oklahoma State — have come few and far in between thus far as a pro.

For one, in college, Smart inspired fear on opposing defenses with his bursts of explosiveness, slicing down the lane and drawing an avalanche of fouls. Conversely, four months into his NBA career, Smart has averaged just 1.6 drives per game and 0.8 points per game off of said drives, per NBA.com — numbers that rival the athletic freaks known as Kyle Singler and C.J. Miles.

Sure enough, his free throw rate has plummeted down to 0.311 as a pro; and once again, when using Harden as the benchmark, unlike in college, Smart has failed in comparison as Harden produced a free throw rate of 0.415 as a rookie, per Basketball-Reference.

In fact, roughly 61.4 percent of Smart’s field goal attempts come behind the 3-point line and approximately 63.7 percent of his field goals made this season are assisted upon, per NBA.com.

Moreover, Smart was an absolute terror in transition during his days as a Cowboy. In fact, over 20 percent of his offense derived off of fast break situations where he generated an above average 1.1 points per possession (PPP) in transition as a collegiate player, per Draft Express.

Fast forward to present day, donning the Celtic green, only 17.4 percent of his offense comes through transition opportunities, where he is currently producing an anemic 0.74 PPP on the break, per NBA.com

His struggles as a ball in hand creator is perhaps even more evident. Explicitly, Smart only achieves a banal 0.50 PPP in isolation situations, and likewise, 0.48 PPP as the ballhandler in pick-and-roll sets, ranking him in the bottom fifth in both respective categories, according to NBA.com’s SportVU Data.

Much of Smart’s distresses on offense, in particular, as a penetrator, stems from (a) his physical limitations/recent injuries and (b) his underdeveloped handle.

Smart’s professional career got off to somewhat of a rocky start, as the 20 year-old floor general suffered a rash of injuries; first, spraining his ankle in early November, then suffering an Achilles injury a month later.

Consequently, Smart has missed 14 games thus far this season, including a string of 10 straight games after his ankle injury.

Some of the missing explosiveness we are accustomed to seeing when enjoying the Marcus Smart experience is surely a product of a physically-limited Smart.

Moreover, for someone with a build more suited for the NFL as opposed to the NBA, Smart more than likely fell out of prime shape rather quickly — especially when considering the severity of his lower body injuries.

Even at the draft combine, when players train incessantly in preparation for the most important day of their lives, Smart recorded a body fat percentage of 10.6 percent. To put that into perspective, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall went into their respective draft combines with body fat percentages of 4.64.8, and 5.6, respectively, according to Draft Express.

Needless to say, Smart is probably still working his way towards single digits after his slew of ailments.

On the other hand, his lack of a refined handle also serves a blockade between Smart and the hoop.

Specifically, Smart lacks the prerequisite shake and stop-and-go moves to effectively create space off the bounce. At this point in his young career, he is still very much a straight-line driver relying primarily on his overbearing physique to bully his defenders towards the basket.

He has shown glimpses of an aesthetically pleasing right-to-left crossover and a nifty spin move along the baseline; but other than that, Smart has hardly put defenders on their proverbial heels with NBA-caliber lead guard maneuvers.

Furthermore, when he does manage to get to the rack, Smart has had trouble finishing around the rim. Not the most creative of finishers, Smart has the tendency to show the ball too early and too often to the opposition’s contingent of preying shotblockers.

To make matters worse, his lack of lift and inability to curate material separation makes him an easy target for shot blocks.

In fact, for the season, Smart is only making 46.6 percent of his attempts from eight feet and in, per NBA.com.

In order for Smart to evolve into a primary ballhandler/ball-in-hand creator, Smart must refine his dribble drive game — with the increased emphasis on dribble.

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Conversely, though, Smart’s defensive aptitude has been as advertised. Specifically, he already is one of the best on ball defenders in the association.

While Smart rarely picks up opposing guards the full length of the court — ala fellow rookie, Elfrid Payton (see his rookie report here) — he usually harasses ballhandlers a few steps above the half court mark.

His inherent unrelenting nature and physical gifts enables Smart to suffocate the opposition, causing a slew of deflections and unforced turnovers.

In fact, according to a report conducted by Vantage Sports in late January, out of all rookies, Smart has consistently been the best at keeping his man in front of him, and as well, ranks within the top tenth in the league at forcing turnovers.

Moreover, Smart is one of three rookies — the other two being Payton and Nerlens Noel — to have a positive Defensive Plus-Minus (DRPM), at 0.19, per ESPN.com.

And while his unceasing pressuring brand of defense can lead to the occasional blow by, his tenacity as an on ball defender, for the most part, is a perfect fit with Steven’s split-the-court/ice all actions towards one side of the floor defensive scheme.

Chiefly, Smart’s interminable propensity to body up ballhandlers and drive them towards the baseline plays right into Boston’s defensive philosophy.

On the occasion when the screener does manage to hit him with a rock solid pick, Smart, with his combination of lower body strength and chiseled physique, just brushes through the screen as if it were a turnstile.

As such, even if Smart’s offensive game, specifically his potential to evolve into a primary creator, fails to blossom, his defensive prowess alone will make him a valuable asset and serviceable NBA player for the foreseeable future.

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Stevens is truly one of the best young coaches in the NBA. The Celtics’ coach naturally understands the intricacies of the modern style of play; and in addition, fully comprehends his players’ current set of strengths and weaknesses, and thereby, puts them in a position to succeed accordingly.

With Smart, Stevens have mainly utilized his burly guard as a quintessential 3-and-D specialist — most often times putting Smart on the opposition’s most lethal guard or wing, matchup depending, and using him as a secondary ballhandler as well as a spot-up shooter/floor spacer on the offensive end.

Boston Celtics Blessed To Have The Forward Thinking Of Their Coach

Oct 6, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens watches from the sideline as they take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Moreover, drive in large part by his limitations as a ballhandler, Smart usually shares the court with another capable initiator, such as Evan Turner, Jameer Nelson (earlier during the season), and Isiah Thomas (post-trade deadline).

Smart’s size, length, and strength, much like in college, enables him to slide and effectively defend one-through-three.

For that reason, the debate as to whether Smart is a “point guard” or “shooting guard” is inconsequential, and quite trivial, in fact.

Much of Smart’s future prospects as a player will be based upon his ability to recapture his shiftiness and explosiveness, as well as his development as a ballhandler and ball-in-hand creator.

If he can successfully prove he can be the primary initiator on a championship contending team, the Celtics should then surround Smart with the right complement of floor spacers/3-and-D pieces — and whether such complementary pieces comes in the form of a point guard-sized or shooting guard-sized backcourt mate will determine Smart’s ultimate position.

In contrast, if Smart proves to be nothing more than a high end 3-and-D player, then he becomes one the complementary pieces; and thus, his position will be determined, similarly, by the size and defensive strengths of his future backcourt mate.

One thing is for certain, Smart will have a long fruitful career in the NBA. Whether or not he can evolve into a dominant playmaker is still yet to be determined. But for now, at worst, Smart can be a Tony Allen-type defender with a viable spot-up jumper — almost like a poor man’s Wes Matthews/P.J. Tucker hybrid.

If he can reach his full potential, however, we are looking at a two way monster capable of making a material impact on winning through both ends of the floor.