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Midseason progress report: Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is playing the best basketball of his career.

Los Angeles Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Currently in his 6th year, both with the Celtics and in the NBA, he is playing the best basketball of his career. Functionally, Smart is operating primarily as the secondary shooting guard with the assignment of guarding whoever is the best player on the opposing team when on the floor. Abstractly, Marcus Smart is the heartbeat of the Celtics ecosystem. He is a leader of this team, both vocally and emotionally, setting the tone by example.

This season has seen Smart build on the improved shooting from last year, forcing defenses to respect his outside shot, punishing them if they don’t. Shooting 35.3 percent from deep on a career high 6.5 attempts per game, he is drawing defenders out onto the perimeter where before they would sag. As with any respectable scorer from deep, the benefit to this is the improved spacing it provides the offense. Lanes become easier to fill and seams become gaps to attack. At 4.7 assists per game, Smart is hitting his man when they attack those gaps he has helped create.

As with anything Marcus Smart does, the real impact doesn’t show in the box score. True with both his offense and defense, he generates so much good that is not quantified by numbers or analytics alone. His offense is not quantifiable just by the amount of shots he drains. For example, it doesn’t include the hockey assists he provides when operating as the de facto screener when the big is operating on the weak side of the floor. Nor is it fair to judge the way he runs the offense based purely on his assist-to-turnover ratio. The only statistical measure that can somehow encapsulate his value are Tommy Points. He is a player who essentially transcends the numbers.

But let’s try to do just that.

Offensively, according to Synergy, Smart is seeing most of his success when coming off the pick-and-roll as the ball handler. Ranking in the 92nd percentile and shooting 45.1 percent when getting to the basket, he’s scoring 1.09 points per possession. Running the pick-and-roll has become a staple of the Celtics offense, particularly for Smart; over a fifth of his offensive play types are as a ball handler and he’s scoring at an efficient 54.4 percent clip.

Not bad for a guard that supposedly can’t shoot.

If you are not a Celtics fan and don’t see what Marcus Smart does on the defensive end of the floor on a nightly basis, then a quick look at the analytics would lead you to believe that Smart is wildly overhyped on that end. Both Synergy and Cleaning The Glass have Smart down as league average for almost all of the key play types tracked.

Marcus Smart defensive stats via Synergy
Marcus Smart defensive stats via Synergy
Marcus Smart defensive stats via cleaning the glass
Marcus Smart defensive stats via cleaning the glass

However, it’s the hustle plays that generate mistimed passes, the charges he draws, or how he continually switches guarding between all five positions at a moment’s notice that sets him apart. It’s those types of plays that, when coupled with his suffocating ball pressure that earned him a spot on the All-NBA Defensive First Team last year, make him a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

When looking at what he doesn’t do so great, there are some misconceptions. A quick look at his career shooting percentages don’t provide the full context of his steady improvement. His real efficiency when shooting the ball lies somewhere in between the two.

One of Smart’s current weaknesses is his new found willingness to shoot the team in and out of games. He can go from an 8-shot attempt night straight into a 16-shot attempt night in a 24-hour span. There is no consistency in the amount of shots he is taking or where he is taking them from. A more defined offensive role could lead to a further uptick in scoring efficiency for him.

His ability to finish in traffic is also in need of serious work, currently sitting in the 12th percentile around the rim. With his physique and toughness he is capable of driving into the defense and getting to the line in a similar way to Brad Wanamaker.

If he can add those finishes in close and become more polished with the floater he likes to release over bigger defenders, his offensive game becomes a worrisome prospect for teams to deal with. Especially true when coming off the bench, he will be able to torment second string two-guards on both ends of the floor while still operating as the floor general, dictating the pace and flow of the game.

On defense, Smart leaves almost no room for criticism. He sets the tone for the team in both aggression and application. He knows when to help or when to hold his line and guard his man and most importantly, he knows when to hold other accountable. He embodies the mantra of “defense wins championships.”

Overall, Smart provides leadership, defense, and a growing repertoire of offensive skills. He is a steal on his current contract, adored by his teammates and fans alike while giving his match-up nightmares before a game. While he may not be a star in the league or even on this team, there are few players more integral to a team’s championship aspirations than Smart is to Boston.

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