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Checking in on Marcus Smart’s three-point shooting

Marcus Smart’s three-point surge last season might actually be his new normal — with a twist.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

I can’t blame you if you weren’t completely sold on Marcus Smart’s career season as a three-point shooter last year. It had the look of a pretty textbook outlier. He managed just a 29% mark from deep across the first four seasons of his career, including a 25% rate on over four attempts per game in 2015-16 that might have ranked as the worst shooting season of all time (at least, until Russell Westbrook starting stalking that title like the monster from It Follows). For a player like that to suddenly morph into an above-average threat from behind the arc — and on high volume, to boot? You’d be forgiven for not buying in.

And yet, here we are: halfway through the 2019-20 NBA season, and Smart has been cashing in on his 6.5 three-point attempts at a 35.2% rate. That’s legitimately good shooting, especially given the enormous volume. Dating back to last season, Smart has hit on almost exactly 36% of his three-point attempts over his last 119 games. It’s time for us to consider the possibility that this is for real.

I wrote about Smart’s breakthrough campaign at almost this exact same point last season. The gist of my takeaway in that piece was that Smart was doing more by doing less; he was finding and taking more open shots, and forcing up fewer bad ones. He upped his catch-and-shoot attempts by nearly half, and found a lot more looks classified as “open” or “wide-open” by NBA Stats. The days of Marcus Smart: Bad Shot Chucker were largely over.

For the most part, those improvements have carried over to this season. A tidy 64% of his shot attempts have been classified as “open” or “wide-open” by NBA Stats, and he’s connecting on 35.6% of such three-pointers. Those numbers are slight regressions from his 69% and 36.5% marks in the same categories, but still very much encouraging.

The big difference between this season and last, then, has not been when Smart has taken threes, but how. That’s where this gets very interesting — Smart has found himself a pull-up jumper.

What makes this development so fascinating is that it’s a complete reversal of his breakout campaign. Smart’s breakthrough came via the catch-and-shoot jumper. A robust 45% of his total shot attempts were catch-and-shoot threes, and he connected on 38.7% of them. Pull-up threes, meanwhile, accounted for just 15% of his shots, and only 29.1% found pay dirt.

Now, the tables have almost completely turned. About one fifth of Smart’s shot attempts have been pull-up threes — 2.3 attempts per game, per NBA Stats — and he’s connecting on an impressive 43% of those looks. If that number sounds ludicrous to you, it should. Prior to this year, he’s been a sub-30% shooter on pull-up threes in every single season save one (37% on just 54 attempts in 2015-16). Meanwhile, his catch-and-shoot looks have dwindled to 38% of his attempts, and he’s only making 30% of them.

The reasons behind this shift in Smart’s shot selection are fairly easy to posit. After his promotion to the starting lineup last season, Smart saw a lot of minutes alongside Kyrie Irving and Al Horford as the offensive initiators. With the ball often in their hands, off-ball action logically became the most comfortable way for him to find shots.

Now, with both Irving and Horford playing elsewhere, ball-handling responsibilities have broadened across the roster. With the Celtics lacking much shot-creation upside — particularly off the bench — Smart’s newfound ability to create quality looks for himself has been a boon.

Is Smart an elite-tier pull-up shooter now? Of course not. The improvement is encouraging, but the safe bet is that he’ll regress to the mean before too long. That doesn’t spell doom for his shooting, however, as it’s reasonable to bet that his catch-and-shoot jumpers will regress positively at the same time. That 30% mark on such looks is actually the second-worst of his career, if you can believe that. Now, an idealized version of Smart that can hit both pull-up and catch-and-shoot jumpers at above-average consistency and volume? That’s an enticing prospect.

There are still avenues for improvement for Marcus Smart as an offensive weapon. While his three-point shooting has sustained, his two-point percentage is down nearly a full 100 points from his career-high 51% last season. After converting on nearly 70% of his shots at the rim last year, he’s regressed to a 53% rate more in line with his career numbers. More disconcertingly, he’s also taken nearly as many mid-range jumpers through 39 games (132) as he did in 80 last season (133), with a 37% success rate that certainly does not justify such high volume.

These aren’t substantial concerns, however. His mid-range shot attempts will likely be reigned in when the Celtics return to full health and the need for offense becomes less dire. He’s also still one of the best passers on the roster, dishing assists at a rate in line with his career bests. In terms of OBPM, his +1.3 mark this season thus far ranks as by far the best season of his career.

Most importantly, the three-point shot still reigns supreme. Smart has continued to cash in on his deep attempts with consistency on very high volume. Last season’s breakthrough is starting to look less like an outlier and more like his new normal, and that is a tremendous win for the Boston Celtics.

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