After Marcus Smart shoved a fan and received his 3rd technical foul of the season, I wrote about the correlation between technical fouls and defense in the NBA. As tempting as it was to anoint him as a future defensive star on this alone, playing good defense in games is still important, too. I compiled a video of his performance vs. DeAndre Kane and Iowa State, which will surely be the toughest matchup he faces all year. Kane is a 6’4 200 PG who turns 25 in June and is having a great season under Fred Hoiberg, as he is vying with Smart and Andrew Wiggins for Big 12 Player Of The Year. Also this should shed some light on why Oklahoma State has struggled so much with Mike Cobbins’s injury, as Smart has been forced to play minutes as an undersized PF instead of permanently wreaking havoc as a great perimeter defender.
I believe this game exemplifies what Smart brings to the table on defense. It seems that nobody wants to discuss him as a defensive superstar because he doesn’t have the super quicks and athleticism of a prospect like John Wall, but everything else about him is so elite that he may be great anyway. He is listed as 6’4 220 with a 6’8 wingspan, and it may not be long before he is the physically strongest PG in the league. Each of Iowa State’s bigs tried backing him down, and none of them could push him too deep. DeAndre Kane is strong for a college PG and was hopeless trying to post up Smart. Smart’s strength will aid him in fighting through screens in the NBA, and he has the size to match up with PG’s, SG’s, or even the occasional SF. While he is considered a bit of a tweener, his defensive versatility and ability to cross match automatically makes him one of the good variety. He makes an excellent pairing with guards such as George Hill or Avery Bradley, as either would create a dynamic defensive duo with awesome matchup flexibility.
Even though he only had one steal this game, it may be the most impressive steal I have witnessed this season. I do not believe anybody else in the 2014 draft class can both make the lightning quick mental reaction and have the tools to close out and intercept the pass. Smart is a steal generating machine, and there is no gimmicky press or zone defense involved, just honest to goodness defensive domination. Oklahoma State plays mostly man to man defense, and prior to Smart’s arrival Travis Ford has never coached a defense that forced many turnovers. His best rank in defensive TOV% prior to Smart’s arrival is 160th in 2008-09, and they have ranked 77th and 87th in each of the past 2 years respectively. This is entirely due to Smart, as he has 31% of his team’s steals in 14% of their minutes played, and as a freshman he had 40% (!!!) of his teams steals in 16.4% of their total minutes. Among regular rotation players this year, Smart has a 4.6% steal rate and the second highest is Brian Williams at 2.3%. Fringe prospects Markel Brown (1.4%) and Le’Bryan Nash (1.1%) create a small fraction of the steals that Smart does. As a freshman he boasted a 5.3% steal rate which was more than double any of the Cowboys’ regular rotation players.
Further, Oklahoma State’s opposing eFG% has flourished since Smart’s arrival. Ford had some defenses that forced difficult shots at UMass, but in his first 4 seasons at Oklahoma State they ranked 219th, 136th, 71st, and 122nd respectively in eFG% defense. In Smart’s two seasons they have ranked 27th and 49th. This is less directly attributable to Smart, but there is a good case to be made that he deserves more credit than any other Oklahoma State player for this recent leap.
Of course the counterpoint to all of this is that he cannot shoot. Even if he is the next Tony Allen defensively, he needs to set himself apart from Tony Allen offensively to justify a top 5 pick. His overall offensive stats are comparable to those of senior Tony Allen, except he is posting them at 2+ years younger. His poor shooting is mitigated by his handling, passing, and finishing ability, and he also excels at getting to the line and making his free throws at a decent clip. Also his shooting woes are mitigated by the fact that he understands that 3 > 2. He is shooting 29.3% from 3 and 30.2% on non-rim 2’s, which unfortunately compares to Aaron Gordon who is shooting 32.3% from 3 and 27% on long 2’s. But his overall eFG on non-rim shots is 39.5% vs Gordon’s 31.2%, simply because he knows not to relentlessly launch long 2’s and Gordon doesn’t. His free throw percentage offers an inkling of hope that he can develop into a respectable 3 point shooter in the pros, after all he shoots an awful lot off the dribble with just 56% of his 3 point makes coming assisted this season.
A common comparison for Smart is Tyreke Evans, and I do not believe it is an unflattering one. Evans was worse from both 3 (27.4% vs 29.2%) and FT (71.1% vs 76.0%) in college, his shot has developed poorly in the pros, yet he is still a capable scorer. He had similar efficiency on higher usage (33 vs 28) to Smart as a freshman, but as a sophomore Smart has cut down on his turnovers to improve his efficiency and surpass Evans’ overall freshman stats by a slim margin. Being behind Evans as a collegiate scorer is not the worst thing in the world, as Evans appeared to be on the path to stardom as a rookie before regressing. Between Smart’s work ethic, competitiveness, confidence, and the fact that he probably will not be drafted by the Kings, he has a strong shot of developing much better than Evans as a pro.
A common critique of Smart’s game is that he bullies smaller competition and this will not translate. This critique is poorly founded. Opposing teams are aware of Marcus Smart and what he does on the basketball court. They don’t simply let him post up 6’0 point guards ad nauseum. Believe it or not, they will often use their bigger wing players to match up with him because they noticed that he is 6’4 and built like a linebacker and good at basketball. It’s not costly for them to do this either, as he is never the smallest player on the floor for Oklahoma State in spite of being the PG. He may not be able to fully translate his FT rate, but he should prove adept at getting to the line in the pros as he will continue to have a significant advantage in strength over opposing guards.
The important questions regarding Smart are his shooting ability and his ability to run an offense. If either of these were stronger, he would be in the conversation for a top 3 pick. But between his array of skills and his elite intangibles, he has a decent shot of nevertheless becoming a valuable offensive player who is a force defensively. And even if he never quite pans out offensively, he can still be better than Tony Allen on that end with similar or slightly worse defense. In short, he should be at least as useful as Tony Allen a significant % of the time and he has clear star upside as well. That may not be enough to merit top 3 consideration, but after Embiid, Exum, and Parker there is no clear #4 and I believe Smart makes as compelling of a pick as any other prospect in that slot.