Marcus Smart has quietly shaped up to be a premiere talent among the league's youth
Today’s league is filled with players that transcend the five traditional positions that players fall into. There are the Draymond Greens of the league, the beefy guys that anchor the paint and play the role of a center, without possessing the typical qualities of a center. Then, you have the Giannis Antentokounmpo types, who play the role of a point guard, despite being significantly taller than their positional counterparts. Welcome to basketball in 2016, where the point guards are getting taller and centers are getting shorter. As far as I’m concerned, positions are irrelevant in today’s NBA, as there’s nothing to be gained from trying to shoehorn these kinds of players into a traditional role.
Marcus Smart, listed at point guard, is a player who has been criticized for his shooting as of late, and for good reason. His 3-point shooting in particular has been particularly bad this season, as seen here:
Source: From stats.nba.com
As is the case with Celtics guards this year, Smart scores a lot of points near the basket, but unlike Isaiah, he does it by grabbing offensive rebounds for putbacks, converting steals into quick baskets, and often being on the receiving end of long outlet passes on turnovers and made baskets. With that type of skillset to accompany the numbers in the picture above, we can say that Marcus Smart is definitely a good scorer… within 14 feet. In the same way that height isn’t necessary to play center, long range shooting is not necessary to guide a basketball through a hoop.
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on such poor three point shooting, but hear me out: it’s not as bad as you think. Smart is a second year player who has taken 240 threes in 80 games (excluding his longest range shots, which I assume were full court heaves to beat the buzzer). If nothing else, he now has a lot of experience shooting threes on an NBA court. Smart has taken the 9th most three pointers among sophomore players this year, which seems like too many, but when you look at how his classmates are doing, you’d see that he isn’t falling as far behind the learning curve as you’d think:
Source: From stats.nba.com
The sample sizes obviously vary quite a bit, but singling out Smart’s 25.5% accuracy from range as an outlier isn’t exactly fair with three other second year players shooting below 30%. Also note that among the 22 players listed, there are only two shooting 40% or better. Keeping in mind that Smart can score at a high percentage at certain distances, it isn’t accurate to say he’s a bad shooter based on field goal percentages. Positions don’t define players, nor do percentages define scorers.
Smart’s 4.2 rebounds per game is 11th among sophomore players, making him the best rebounding guard in his class, given that the top 10 rebounders are 6’8” are taller, while Smart stands at 6’4”. The Celtics are 6th in the league in rebounding, largely in part to players like Smart who are just as capable of boxing out big men as the big men themselves. Smart is 8th overall among point guards in rebounding, and would still rank 8th if he were listed as a shooting guard.
Brian Scalabrine once called Smart “The Cobra” after he dove on the floor for one of his most impressive steals of the season, seen here:
His 1.5 steals per game this year is second to only Nerlens Noel among sophomores. In terms of total steals, Gary Harris has 97 to Smart’s 91, but in 16 more games played. The Celtics are 2nd in the league in steals, with Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart among the league’s top 25 thieves, at 12th, 22nd, and 24th on the list respectively. No other team has more than three players in the top 25.
Despite not filling the traditional point guard role, Smart is still one of the better passers in his class, averaging 3.1 assists per game this year, second to only Elfrid Payton’s hair. Smart averaged 3.1 assists last year as well, but with the addition of Isaiah Thomas (14th overall in assists), I find it impressive that his assists haven’t declined.
One of the main concerns about Marcus is that it doesn’t appear that he’s made any major improvements from his first season to his second, but this is only true if you judge him based on his per game stats:
Source: From stats.nba.com
With this season coming to a close, we can say that his first two seasons are nearly identical, with slight increases to his points and rebounds per game. Here’s what people are missing: The Celtics as a team have taken a huge leap since acquiring Isaiah Thomas, jumping from what we thought to be a long-term lottery team to being one major piece away from Championship implications. With such a large leap, it’s easy for players to get lost in transition. Tyler Zeller, for example, started in three games this season after starting in 59 last year.
“But,” you might be thinking, “The Celtics added Amir Johnson to their roster, what did you expect?”
This is a great point, as it only makes sense that Johnson would start over Zeller, but don’t forget that Smart has survived on a roster that replaced Rajon Rondo with Isaiah Thomas, drafted the super-athletic Terry Rozier from Louisville, has an arguably better defensive guard in Avery Bradley, and moved Evan Turner to a point guard-type role. Even with David Lee falling out of the rotation (and then the roster), Zeller still sees significantly less playing time than last year. There have been a lot of changes to the roster since Smart was drafted, and minutes were sometimes hard to come by while Brad Stevens experimented with line ups, yet Marcus hasn’t wavered a bit.
Sometimes it’s not about making the leap. It’s about being a part of it.