With Rajon Rondo expected to be sidelined for at least the first couple weeks of the season while recovering from surgery to repair his injured hand, the Boston Celtics will need to rely heavily on rookie point guard Marcus Smart to help fill the void. While the two appear to be very different types of players, it would suit the team best for Smart to show us his best Rondo impersonation as a pass-first point guard in the early part of the season.
During his two years at the collegiate level at Oklahoma State, Smart had more of a scorer's mentality. Last season he averaged 18.0 points per game and only 4.8 assists. He also put up 12.5 shots per game, which is more field goal attempts than Rondo has ever averaged in his eight year NBA career. A large portion of those shots (5.3 per game) came from three-point range, despite that he has always been a poor shooter.
Oklahoma State didn't have Smart run a lot of pick and rolls, with only 21.2% of his offensive possessions being used in those situations, per Draftexpress.com. Instead, he'd often use his physicality and athleticism to power his way to the basket. While Rondo's poor free throw shooting has always made him hesitant to draw contact, Smart welcomes it. Last season he drew a foul to put himself at the charity stripe on 31.3% of his transition possessions and 21.2% of his half court possessions. That put him at a line an average of 7.3 times per game over his two year college career, where he converted at an above average rate of 75.1%.
This would suggest that Smart will be more of a scorer than a passer as he develops into an NBA player -- which in the long run may be true. Except that so far this pre-season, that's not what we are seeing from Smart. Through the first four exhibition games, Smart is averaging only 6.7 points per game, scoring in double figures only once and converting at a nauseating 24.1% clip. That rate is dragged down heavily by an 0-for-8 shooting performance in his debut, but he's yet to show the type of scoring ability he projects to have.
While his shooting has yet to start clicking, Smart has been better than advertised as a passer, averaging 5.0 assists per game in this limited sample size. He was actually averaging 6.3 assists through the first three games, before a dud performance in a loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday night put a dent in that average. A weary Celtics team playing their fourth game in six nights played poorly as a whole, indicating that performance is likely the outlier of the group.
Until Rondo returns, the Celtics will need Smart to continue being a distributor, especially if he earns the starting point guard spot on Opening Night. While this Celtics roster has a few players, such as Evan Turner, capable of sharing ball handling duties at times, Phil Pressey is the only pure point guard behind Smart at the moment. Someone needs to initiate the offense and help get easy looks for the rest of the team and Smart appears to be the best option to fill that role in the early going. He may never average double-digit assists like Rondo has over the years, but he's capable of at least having an above-average assist rate for his position.
Coach Brad Stevens should still encourage Smart to attack the basket, given that's where his strengths are in converting near the hoop and drawing fouls. However, he needs to pick his spots carefully when it comes to taking jump shots and realize setting up a teammate is often the more efficient play. In college he was relied upon to take charge of the team's scoring output, but at this level the team has other options to shoulder that load.
Smart will inevitably improve as a shooter as he adjusts to playing at the NBA level. Eventually he'll have to be given the chance if he is to get meaningful minutes playing off the ball alongside Rondo, but until then his focus should be more on being a distributor. As he eases in to playing at this level, his shots will begin to fall and he should develop into one of the team's better scoring options, but from what we've seen in a limited sample size so far, he's not ready to make that a main emphasis of his game right now.
Using Smart in this capacity also allows the team to get a look of how the offense might look down the road if the Celtics were ever to trade Rondo, or if he departs next summer in free agency. Smart could potentially be the team's point guard of the future, so they need to use this time while Rondo is on the mend to see how Smart handles that role. Is he a combo guard that looks to score as his first instinct or is he capable of being a point guard that runs an efficient offense the way Rondo has shown in the past.
If Rajon Rondo isn't part of the team's long term future, he'll leave behind some pretty big shoes to fill at the point guard position. For the next few weeks, Marcus Smart will get a chance to at least try on those shoes and see how they fit.