By James Holas
Some players aren’t built for small roles. Three years into his career, Marcus Smart is still figuring out his part in the NBA. But if the Boston Celtics are going to contend, Smart will need to be a big part of it.
“We can talk about Marcus’ shooting percentage all year round all we want,” Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens said [via Brian Robb, CBS Boston]. “But I think we all know when it’s on the line, he’s going to make it. And that’s a unique trait.”
Smart’s game is so unrefined, his greatest advocates struggle to find a fitting label beyond winner. He makes winning plays.
Think back to the 2016 NBA Playoffs: the Atlanta Hawks’ Paul Millsap is kicking in the teeth of every Boston Celtics’ defender in sight. The hardnosed veteran was too big for Boston’s small forwards, too quick for its power forwards and too everything for Amir Johnson.
Millsap racked up 36 points through the first three quarters and looked to carry on his torrid pace with a quick six points early in the fourth quarter to give his Hawks a five-point lead.
Enter Marcus Smart.
The Celtics’ cinder block in sneakers spent the last nine minutes of regulation and all of overtime in Millsap’s jersey and the river of buckets from Atlanta’s go-to guy evaporated into thin air.
Despite giving up five inches and over 20 points to Millsap, Smart held the Hawks’ power forward to 1-for-5 shooting to help the Celtics battle back for the win. Isaiah Thomas was electric in overtime and Smart chipped in 20 points himself, but afterwards the buzz as all about Smart erasing Millsap. How many players, let alone point guards, can pull off a stunt like that?
The answer is none.
Marcus Smart is a unicorn, just not in the same sense we’ve become accustomed to using that word. From my exhaustive three minutes of Google research, the term unicorn was first introduced into the basketball lexicon in reference to Serge Ibaka’s combination of perimeter and interior defense coupled with his three-point shooting.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the O.G.’s of unicorn-ism, combining elite size and skill in unsolvable packages. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns merge size, speed and athleticism into various levels of unstoppable.
While he doesn’t possess the offensive might of the players listed above, Smart’s unique combination of brute strength, deceptive speed and high-revving motor from the point guard position make him a defender like no one else in the NBA.
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Smart is built like a M1 Abrams tank with the rumbling speed of a Mustang—strong enough to battle a bruiser like Millsap under the rim, yet quick enough to give the likes of Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry fits on the perimeter. Last year, while Avery Bradley’s on-ball hawking got more press, and no one can deny how much Al Horford’s intelligence and rotations bolstered the defense, Smart’s versatility on and off the ball was the straw that stirred the Celtics’ defensive drink.
A single possession might see Smart picking up the enemy point guard three quarters court, sucking precious time off the 24-second shot clock, then switching onto a 6-foot-8 wing before scrumming in the lane with the burliest of bigs and prying out the defensive rebound.
He’s nigh impossible to screen, alternately warping around the pick to stay locked onto his man’s hip, or erupting through the chest of a would-be screener like a fullback taking it to the house up the middle from the three-yard line.
On ball, Smart is a sight to behold with his 6-foot-9 wingspan unfurled, moving in frustrating synchronicity with the ball handler’s every twitch and feint, sliding to wall off every drive with seemingly precognitive swiftness. And with snake-quick hands and impeccable timing, Smart has honed the uncanny ability to, not tip or deflect, but simply snatch the ball out of the hands of unsuspecting souls, swooping in to straight up gank the ball when he senses the slightest lapse in attention.
But if Smart’s defense is ready for modern warfare, his offense is all primitive clubs and stone-tipped spears.
Coming out of college, Smart’s size and do-it-all power game drew comparisons to the likes of James Harden and Dywane Wade. There’s an alternate universe where Smart was drafted to the lowly Phoenix Suns or the Philadelphia 76ers, is spoon-fed 35 minutes and 17 shots a night on a 24-win team and is now perceived as a borderline All-Star averaging 22 points per game on Allen Iverson-like efficiency and lockdown defense.
Here on our Earth, however, he’s sputtered offensively while soaring defensively, limited by the constraints and impatience of a perennial playoff team.
Last season, 75 NBA players took 300 or more threes. Smart’s 28.3 percent was dead last among them. In the three-point era, only two other seasons compare to Smart’s combo of volume and shooting futility: Mookie Blaylock’s 1998 season (on the plus side, those Hawks won 50 games!) and Kobe Bryant’s train wreck of a final season.
If Smart’s struggles were only from three, the Celtics could live with it, but he doesn’t fare much better inside the arc either. A stroll down the list of guards to take at least as many two-point shots (417) while shooting as poorly on two-pointers (42 percent) as Smart did last year is cringe-worthy.
Smart wasn’t very good scoring from anywhere. Even his perceived strengths, posting up and finishing around the basket, aren’t strong—he shot a pitiful 48.8 percent within three feet of the basket.
He tends to either rush his initial move, resulting in panicked, off-balanced shots, or he overthinks and overdribbles, stalling the offense while trying to score with two or more defenders set and keyed onto his efforts. As athletic as he is (he recorded a 36-inch vertical and it’s not rare to see him catapulting out of crowds for put-back dunks), he’s still only 6-foot-3, so longer players make his life hell around the cup.
All hope is not lost, however. Like Andre Roberson for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Marcus Smart brings so much value, defensive and otherwise, he’s worth jiggering lineups to keep on the floor. Unlike Roberson, Smart isn’t completely useless on the offensive end.
Coach Stevens has proven adept at putting his players in optimal positions to succeed and the Celtics’ multifaceted roster means there will be some intriguing looks on the floor at times; some of which should highlight Smart’s unorthodox offensive skills.
With Gordon Hayward replacing Bradley, look for Stevens to tweak how he deploys Smart. Much like Stevens surrounds Isaiah Thomas with stout defenders to mask his defensive deficiency, the Celtics can now slot Smart next to Hawyward, Horford and Thomas; freeing Smart to focus on finding the crevices in the defense, cutting baseline or sneaking into pockets of space for easy looks.
And as a primary ball handler, Smart has shown some ability to run an offense, finding shooters and cutters with passes from all angles. In his third year, Smart’s assist rate took a healthy jump from 15.8 percent to 22 percent, while his turnover rate only ticked up slightly from his career 13.1 percent to 15.6 percent, which was lower than John Wall’s and Russell Westbrook’s.
With Hawyard fitting right in with Horford and Thomas as players who can transition from on-ball to off-ball threats seamlessly, the Celtics can take advantage of Smart’s ability to wreak havoc on defense without decimating its own offense.
Alternatively, deploy Smart to run a second unit with the likes of Jabari Bird (37.8 percent from deep in college), Jayson Tatum and Jae Crowder, with Aron Baynes or Ante Zizic at center, and you have a long-armed athletic squad capable of switching almost everything on the perimeter with a big body clogging the lane. Plug Horford in at center, and Boston is playing Four Out with their point guard operating as the interior hub.
And that’s without factoring in any improvement to his shot. Smart’s free throw improvement should give the Celtics a glimmer of hope. Smart shot a shade under 72 percent from the charity stripe as a sophomore at Oklahoma State. He followed that up with 64 percent as a NBA rookie, sounding warning bells. But Smart’s 250 free throw attempts last year were a career high and he cashed in a healthy 81.2 percent of them, proving at the very least he can’t be forced off the court by intentional fouls in the same way Roberson can be.
Smart hasn’t quite lived up to his lofty draft status, but he’s been vital to the Celtics burgeoning success and deserves to get paid what he’s worth. Will he be looking for a larger role? Financial security? How much will it cost for Boston to keep their complementary point guard duo?
Thomas has made no secret he feels he’s worth a max contract, and our own Jesse Blanchard made a compelling case for Danny Ainge to hand oodles of cash over to him. But it’s tough to wrap one’s head around what Boston looks like in a few years with 34-year old Thomas making over $40 million.
One could argue the Celtics wouldn’t have been in the Eastern Conference Finals without Thomas’ offensive heroics, and one would be right. One could also point out how, in the playoffs, the Celtics beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3, then held a 10-point halftime lead in Game 4 with Smart filling in for Thomas and ask: are Thomas’ scoring histrionics worth lowering the team’s defensive floor the way playing Thomas does? Or can Ainge and Stevens hand the reins over to Smart (and Terry Rozier) and trade elite offense from the point guard position for top flight rugged defense and a lowered offensive ceiling?
The 2017-2018 Celtics are prepared to be their most potent selves. The youth of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, plus the future picks in the pipeline, take the edge off any real concerns, but the approaching paydays for both Thomas and Smart makes this a pivotal season.
With a contract on the line, we shall see if Smart can learn to thrive offensively in the narrow role afforded while continuing to accept the toughest defensive challenge night after night.
For the Celtics to take another step up the ladder in NBA relevance, they’ll need Marcus Smart to step out of the mythological unicorn realm and show he can generate some real-world productivity.