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Marcus Smart is working relentlessly in preparation for a monumental season

This season will be the biggest of Marcus Smart’s career to date, and he has put in the work to prepare for it.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I feel like it’s said every year, but Marcus Smart is due for a breakout season. If it weren’t for the Celtics acquiring Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the same summer, Smart would have been one of the most interesting storylines of Boston’s offseason.

The 2017-18 season is a crucial year in Smart’s career. The 23-year-old Swiss Army knife is going into his fourth professional season and will be a restricted free agent come July 1st. Throughout his first three years, Smart has been a key cog in the Celtics rotation. Even though Boston has improved its roster each season since Smart was drafted, the Celtics will need him this year more than ever.

Contract Year

Again, this season is a contract year for Smart. On July 1st, he’ll be a restricted free agent. Teams other than the Celtics can give Smart offer sheets, but Boston has the ability to match anything and bring Smart back assuming they extend him his qualifying offer. If Smart agrees to an extension before the October 16th deadline or right away on 7/1/18, we won’t have to worry about anything. Keith Smith outlined Smart’s contract situation in late July and said that if Smart doesn’t take a team-friendly deal in October, Boston will probably just let him play out the year and test the market come summertime.

Smart’s price tag is the tricky part. Teams won’t have the same amount of cap space as they’ve had the last two years, and restricted free agents aren’t always a lock to get paid big money. This offseason showed both extremes—the Washington Wizards matched Otto Porter’s four-year $106 million offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets, but players like Nerlens Noel had to sign their qualifying offers.

Boston doesn’t have any cap space left after bringing on Hayward and Irving, so Smart’s extension will likely be dependent on the luxury-tax payment Celtics ownership is comfortable with. Smart could earn himself a big extension if he has the season fans are hoping for, but until that happens his contract amount will continue to be a question mark throughout the year. It seems that everything depends on his play this season.

Needed Leadership

After a 53-win regular season and an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2016-17, the Celtics overhauled their roster. Only four players from last year’s team are back: Smart, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown. Most notably, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley are all gone, so as the longest-tenured Celtic on the roster, Smart must now help create Boston’s new identity.

Smart talked to Taylor Snow of about taking on more of a leadership role now that he’s the longest-tenured player, and apparently he’s been ready for it.

“I’m ready to take on that role. And now it’s put into reality where we don’t have Avery and we don’t have Jae Crowder. A lot more responsibility is on my shoulders.”

A lot will be made about the Celtics’ chemistry and identity as a team after blowing up a roster that was one of the final three standing last year, and it’s good to see Smart already taking on that responsibility. Boston hasn’t named a captain since Rajon Rondo in 2014. But there’s a leadership void created by all the roster turnover, and Smart is a guy that can bring back some of that lunchpail work ethic from last year’s squad.

“It’s a different me”

Will this be the year that Smart demonstrates an improved and consistent jump shot? It has been the major question mark that has followed Smart throughout his career, and according to him, he’s a different player now.

“I locked in this summer. I was in the gym every day. Nonstop, every day. I’ve been consistent and I’ve been working my butt off.”

As you can see in the video above, Smart is draining Stephen Curry-level three-point shots at a consistent rate. Also, he’s dominating a pick-up game by scoring on the perimeter, which is something we rarely saw in his first three years in Celtic green.

Smart is extremely versatile and talented on the defensive end of the floor, and he has developed his playmaking ability out of the pick and roll to the point where Brad Stevens trusts him to lead the second unit. If he develops a reliable three-point stroke, he could help take the Celtics to new heights. In his first three seasons, Smart has averaged nearly 30 minutes per game on a consistent playoff-caliber team, even though he shot a pedestrian 29% from three and 36% from the field.

Free throw percentage is often a reliable predictor for a player’s future success shooting threes because it demonstrates a consistent shooting stroke. Smart shot just under 65% from the line in his rookie season, 77.7% in year two, and over 81% last season. The improvement itself is promising, but Smart getting his free throw percentage above 80% is a strong indication that three-point improvement is on the way.

Smart also told Snow that he weighed around 240 pounds last season and that he’s dropped his weight down to 219 pounds. Smart said that he’s “more explosive and things like that, and I’m healthy.”

Besides perimeter shooting, the other aspect of Smart’s offensive game that had been missing is consistent finishing around the rim. Smart converted just 47.6% of his attempts within five feet of the rim last season, good for second to last on the Celtics in front of only Terry Rozier. Adding more explosiveness thanks to the weight loss will certainly help Smart finish at the rim more efficiently. It also doesn’t hurt to be teammates with one of the NBA’s best at-the-rim finishers in Irving.

Going into next season, it’s a good sign to see Smart working relentlessly on his game, especially in two areas that could unlock his potential. The Celtics’ expectations for the season could change drastically if Smart becomes a legitimate two-way stud.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Starter or Sixth Man?

With Bradley and Thomas gone, the Celtics need a new back court. Irving will definitely replace Thomas in the starting lineup, but who takes Bradley’s spot? Smart is a possible candidate to start due to his defensive versatility and playmaking as a primary ball handler. However, Smart presents tremendous value leading the second unit, so his role is kind of up in the air right now.

On offense, Smart is at his best with the ball in his hands in the pick and roll or down low in post-up situations. If he were to start alongside Irving, Hayward, and Horford (all players that thrive as primary playmakers), Smart would have to score off of spot-ups, cuts, and attacking close-outs. Last season Smart ranked in the 49th percentile in spot-ups, and in the 14th percentile off of cuts. Stevens has always tried to put his players in a position where they can succeed, and I’m not sure that starting Smart would cater to his strengths.

Also, if Smart were to start, Rozier would be the primary ball handler in the second unit. From what we saw last season, Rozier might not be ready for that role. In the most common lineup in which Rozier was the primary ball handler, the Celtics were outscored by over 11 points per 100 possessions. Having Smart lead a bench unit that also has a bunch of new players would help in creating the Celtic identity that the team needs to succeed.

Starting a defensive-minded guard next to Irving is attractive since it would take pressure off of him, but Smart isn’t the only one to plug in there. Jaylen Brown is a fine option to start as well. Stevens has been on record saying that Brown needs to become a lockdown defender, so it’s possible that the head coach sees him in that starting role instead of Smart. If Smart is to maximize his game this season, coming off the bench might be the better move. However, if his hard work pays off and his shooting improves, there’s no reason Smart shouldn’t start games with Irving.

There are so many intriguing storylines to follow when thinking about Marcus Smart this year. Whether it’s his new frame, perimeter shooting, leadership role, or his spot in the rotation, Smart has a lot going on. The 2017-18 season will be one of the more noteworthy campaigns in Celtics history because of the unprecedented roster turnover and franchise-altering trades. Not only does Smart have that on his plate, but he has a contract extension in the near future as well. We’ll see how the now four-year veteran responds to the immense pressure that this season will bring.

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