From the very beginning of his tenure in Boston, the No. 1 caveat with building around Marcus Smart has been his lack of a reliable jump shot.
Danny Ainge took a risk last summer when he used a lottery pick on the raw Oklahoma State guard, knowing that he might blossom into a well-rounded NBA floor leader or he might fizzle out. In Boston, we know all too well that your options are limited when building around a point guard who can't shoot - we watched this team struggle post-Brooklyn trade with Rajon Rondo as its best offensive player, and the last thing we wanted was another half-decade or more of that. So naturally, there was a little bit of unease when the window opened for Smart to become the face of the franchise moving forward.
The Celtics knew all along what they were getting into. For reference, here's what a few leading draft experts said about Smart last spring, even before the Celtics took him with the No. 6 overall pick (bolding for emphasis mine):
Chad Ford, ESPN: "Smart isn't a prototypical point guard. He doesn't always see the floor as well as he should, can get too caught up on finding his own shot, and has a jumper that borderlines on being broken. There is a pretty big split among NBA scouts and GMs about Smart's potential because of those weaknesses. Not everyone is on board with him being a lottery pick."
Mike Schmitz, DraftExpress: "Smart still sports a very inconsistent jump shot, something that didn't really improve from his freshman to sophomore seasons. His shooting mechanics leave a lot to be desired, as he dips the ball violently, and fades forward and sometimes sideways on his release. That wouldn't be that big of an issue if Smart didn't take as many jumpers as he does - nearly half of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and he hit just 30 percent of them, many being contested ones early in the shot clock."
Amin Elhassan, ESPN: "For someone who didn't play point guard until he got to college, Smart's not bad. He's got a strong, stocky frame, and he knows how to keep defenders shielded from the ball. Smart is an excellent finisher at the rim, even through contact, and knows how to initiate it and follow through. He's an awful perimeter shooter, from 2- or 3-point range, but that doesn't deter him from pulling up for them. He doesn't have the greatest quickness or explosion in his first step; he tries to muscle his way past defenders."
Seth Partnow, Upside and Motor: "Rondo’s lack of 3-point range combined with Smart’s poor accuracy from distance (just under 30 percent on a lot of attempts as a sophomore), would seem to invite opponents to collapse the lane against this lineup, making both players’ preferred drive-and-kick games less effective. This lack of catch-and-shoot ability means both guys are much more effective with the ball than off the ball, leading to a bit of redundancy and inefficiency offensively."
Fast forward eight months, and it now looks fairly apparent that everyone was wrong about Smart. We're only 30-some games into the kid's NBA career, but thus far, he appears to be a more than competent long-range shooter, and perhaps even one worth building around.
I cite the above quotes not to attack or ridicule the four writers, all of whom I respect a ton. But it sure is interesting that everyone assumed Smart's jump shot wouldn't get there based on a couple of college seasons' worth of data, compiled when he was 18 and 19 years old. Players tend to improve in a lot of ways during their late teens and early twenties, and shooting is indeed one of those ways. With Smart, there's no doubt it's happening.
Marcus Smart from beyond the arc:
If you look at the numbers, it's pretty clear what's happening this season - Smart isn't budging one bit on his shot selection, he's just shooting better. His 3-point attempts are at almost exactly the same level they were at during his OK State days, but his accuracy from long range has jumped by a full 6 percentage points. This is pretty crazy.
Part of what this illustrates is simply the folly of reading too much into college statistics. There are numerous reasons why guys' results at the collegiate level don't always indicate true skill - a player's success or failure might be more a function of his coaching, or the players around him, or simply the flukiness of a small set of data. College stats are obviously not perfect. If they were, we would never have an NBA draft bust - but in reality, the league is littered with plenty of Michael Olowokandis and Adam Morrisons and (cheap shot alert - you've been warned) Evan Turners.
(The sample size issue is a big one, by the way. There needs to be a "small sample" disclaimer in no uncertain terms whenever you're discussing a player who's still only 20 years old. Smart's entire college career - all two years of it - included only 295 attempts from long range. Even Kyle Korver, who's now seen as a 3-point god with 50-50-90 status in his sights, once had a season in which he shot 296 times and finished "only" 37.5 percent. Variance happens.)
With Smart, though, there's reason to believe that the improvement in the young guard's shot is real and sustainable. I say this because the Celtics, especially in recent weeks, have made some subtle modifications to the way they play, in the process creating some openings for Smart to assert himself from the outside. Let's get into a few examples...
One thing the Celtics have done really well lately, though admittedly in fairly small doses, is turn themselves into an Atlanta Hawks-style offensive team that beats you by spacing the floor well and breaking down the defense with ball movement. The above play is a great example - watch as the Celtics move the ball smoothly around the perimeter from Gerald Wallace, to Smart, to Marcus Thornton and then back to Smart again for the 3. The C's are setting a lot of high screens to free up shooters for open looks (as attempted by Tyler Zeller here), but in essence what they're doing is playing a five-out style that attempts to beat you from the perimeter. This suits the Celtics' personnel because they lack a depth of conventional "big men" in the rotation, and it also suits Smart because he's a dual threat from the perimeter. He can knock down the jumper or slash to the hoop.
Not that Smart needs to linger beyond the 3-point arc to be effective. He can also mix it up on the interior, like so:
I love this clip because it illustrates several of Smart's strengths, all in a tidy little 18 seconds. He begins by bringing the ball up the floor like a conventional pointman, but after a dribble hand-off at the top to Kelly Olynyk, Smart goes into the paint and starts wreaking havoc. He briefly clogs up the paint from the left side, impeding Glen Davis from getting to Brandon Bass, then he cuts over to the right and sets two good, solid picks, first on Dahntay Jones to free up Tayshaun Prince and then on Spencer Hawes to buy Olynyk some space. Smart singlehandedly puts the Clippers into scrambling mode defensively, and eventually that means he's wide open to drill the 3. This works so well because Smart's a big, physical dude - he's listed at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, boasting a combination of muscle and speed, which makes him a fantastic screen-setter against a variety of players. When he can bolster that screening ability with a knock-down jump shot as well... man. He's scary.
The other thing the Celtics are doing with Smart's jump shot is looking for it in transition. See here:
A great example of Smart's brilliance on both ends. On defense, you can see him guard Derrick Rose like a friggin' bulldog, taking him out of the play. Then, once the Celtics induce a miss out of Jimmy Butler, Smart cheats out in transition and waits for Turner to find him breaking toward the 3-point arc. Turner indeed finds him, and the result is an easy three points.
If you're a Celtics fan for the long haul - sitting patiently through the rebuild, waiting for things to get better - the above three videos should be a dream come true. We have evidence that the C's are finding a formula that works. They've got a budding star in year one of his rookie contract, they're tapping into his strengths and they're figuring out how to be successful with him.
I hope this keeps up.
Specifically, I hope the Celtics can do two things moving forward, with Smart's improvement in mind:
1. Change the way they play.
This one is on Brad Stevens. If this new and improved Smart is the real deal, the Celtics should modify their system to accommodate him. It's worth taking a moment to go back and look at what's worked well for Smart during this recent hot streak - the perimeter ball movement, the picking and popping, the transition shots - and finding ways to do more of it, moving forward.
For these last few months, it's been difficult for the Celtics to install any kind of "system" at all, offensively or defensively. With so many guys shifting in and out of the rotation due to trades and lineup adjustments, there isn't enough continuity for the players to get comfortable running much of anything. But in Smart, the Celtics have a cornerstone guy who will likely to be integral to their plans for years to come. Why not design a style of play that fits him?
Having Smart's jumper as a weapon in the arsenal can change everything for these Celtics. As recently as a few weeks ago, I was on the verge of declaring that Smart and Jared Sullinger couldn't fit together as part of the Celtics' nucleus. They didn't appear complementary at all - Smart seemed incapable of scoring without driving to the basket, and Sullinger seemed incapable of spacing the floor for Smart's drives because he was too inefficient as an outside shooter. Now, though? The outlook is entirely different. With the new Smart, the ceiling for this pairing is an imitation of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland - the little guy is a dual threat from inside and out, while the big guy can score either in the post or from mid-range. It works.
With Smart's increased versatility, the Celtics have an entirely new dimension. They need to explore it.
2. Change the way they build.
This one's on Danny Ainge. Again, as I said above - before you fully knew what you had in Smart, you were fairly limited in the ways you could build around him. I was asked in an interview last month what kind of player the Celtics needed to draft to fit around Smart in the future, and I gave a fairly specific answer - a forward that can stretch the floor with his jump shot. At the time, that answer seemed forced.
Not anymore. If Smart's going to be legitimately pushing 40 percent from deep, all bets are off. You don't need to add the "stretch" factor all over your roster of Smart is already providing it in spades. If Smart is really as versatile as he's been the last month, the objective for Ainge every draft night becomes simple - just take the best player available, every time. You have no desperate needs. You're liberated.
Which is excellent news, because we've seen a liberated Ainge before. The last time he was building around a single player with this much versatility, it was the early 2000s, and he was collecting pieces to fit around Paul Pierce. His results were fantastic - again and again and again, he found solid NBA players buried in the late first round like diamonds in the rough. He nabbed Al Jefferson at No. 15, Delonte West at No. 24 at Tony Allen at No. 25 all in one year (2004). One draft later, he took Gerald Green 18th and Ryan Gomes in the second round, at No. 50.
Building through the draft is a slow process, and it can be painful for the impatient fan who wants to win now. But Celtics fans can sleep relatively easy knowing two things: one, that Ainge has been through this before and handled it well, and two, that they have a player in Marcus Smart who's looking more and more like the perfect franchise guy to build around.
But again - that's just so far. The kid is young and the sample size is tiny. Let's keep watching, see where this goes and enjoy the journey.