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Marcus Smart is vastly improving as a play maker

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Marcus Smart isn’t a traditional point guard, but he sure is passing like one.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Touted as a combo guard coming out of college, Marcus Smart was never really expected to play point guard full time at the NBA level; he was more of a defensive savant who could score at the rim fairly well for his size.

But now, in his third year, it seems like every time the Oklahoma State product takes the floor he’s making a handful of passes that just leave you utterly impressed. What he’s doing is making the right reads at the correct times in both transition and in half-court sets, which can be directly attributed to his ever-evolving court vision.

Here Smart grabs a long rebound off a Deron Williams missed three and wastes no time in turning, assessing the floor and firing a pinpoint pass to Avery Bradley for a layup to finish the fast break. Look closer, though, and you’ll see Smart seeing the ball out of the corner of his eye before the shot even goes up. He recognizes its Bradley closing out hard on Williams and, with Harrison Barnes backpedaling, Smart understands there’s a good chance Bradley has already taken off down the court for a one-on-one opportunity.

Part of being a great playmaker is knowing who you have around you and what they like to do in certain situations. This skill comes in time, but at the end of the day you still need to execute. If Smart doesn’t look up, it’s a wasted opportunity, and the Celtics would have had to try to score against a set defense, which, of course, is much more difficult.

On this particular play, Smart receives the ball from Amir Johnson, who immediately sets a screen, slips it and dives straight to the rim. As Johnson does that, his man, Cristiano Felicio, comes up to meet Smart until Jerian Grant can recover back to the ball. What this sequence does is leave Johnson wide open under the hoop. Smart recognizes that, stops and delivers a sort of wrap-around pass straight to Johnson for the easy dunk.

Again, it all seems very fundamental, and, for the most part, it is. But Smart could have just as easily swung the ball back to Bradley for a contested three, or maybe Bradley gets the ball and tries to hit Johnson himself. By that time there’s a good chance Felicio has already recovered back to his man, and the opportunity is missed. It’s all about making the right read at the right time—especially in Stevens’s offensive scheme.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If film doesn’t convince you of Smart’s drastic improvement between years two and three, the numbers should.

In 2015-16 he spent a limited amount of time as the ball handler in the pick and roll, participating in just 124 such plays and scoring 0.774 points per possession, per Synergy. Those rates left him in the 50th percentile of all players, which Synergy deems to be “average.” Get a little more specific, just looking at pick and rolls in which Smart passed the ball, and he was much better. Over 297 possessions he scored 0.912 per possession, placing him in the 59th percentile and resulting in a “very good” grade, per Synergy.

Fast forward to this season and there’s a massive difference. Through 10 games Smart has spent 24 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler and is scoring 0.958 points per possession. That puts him in the 78th percentile among all players and earns a grade of “very good”, per Synergy. As for pick and rolls that end with a pass from him, there have been 57 such plays netting a whopping 1.088 points per possession, per Synergy. Synergy considers that “excellent”, and it places him in the 86th percentile.

Small sample size aside, you can see that Smart is well on his way to surpassing the number of possessions he got in each play type last season. And while the points per possession are sure to regress a bit as we get deeper into the year, it’s still very clear that the third-year pro is the best he’s ever been when it comes to creating plays for his teammates.

The bottom line is this—the game is slowing down for Smart, and the proof is in his passing.