“Isn't creative enough.”
“Doesn't have any scoring gravity.”
“Is better served coming off the bench.”
When discussing Marcus Smart's move into the starting point guard role, these were the criticisms sight unseen to begin the season. With Kemba Walker bouncing between the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks and Dennis Schroder joining on a one-year deal, it quickly became evident that Smart would be spearheading the Celtics offense this year.
Then you had those comments after the loss to the Chicago Bulls; you know the ones!
But since that night, Smart has slowly grown into his role as a pass-first distributor and is showing signs of developing into a genuine playmaker for this Celtics team. Over his last five games for the Celtics, Smart is averaging 7 dimes per game and has totaled 35 assists against some stern opposition.
He had eight dimes against the Brooklyn Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and now the Philadelphia 76ers to go with numerous other good passing nights for the veteran guard. According to Cleaning The Glass, Smart is in the 82nd percentile for guards in assist percentage, teeing up his teammates on 23.5% of their made buckets while he was on the floor. If you want to peel another layer off Smart's current playmaking numbers, then looking at his assist-to-usage ratio is a good start, with the guard ranking in the 93rd percentile.
Interestingly, in two of Smart's better passing nights of late, his favorite target wasn't on the floor. Of course, we're talking about Robert Williams, who Smart has assisted 18 times but has missed 6 of the Celtics’ last 8 games.
So, with Williams back on the court against the 76ers, Smart went looking for his bouncy buddy early and often.
Last season, we had the Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis combo that torched teams in the pick-and-roll, while the Smart and Williams one continued to simmer under the surface. With both players now in the starting lineup, they regularly combine for scoring opportunities above the rim.
The buildup to the above play was always going to end with a lob pass for Williams; from the moment the team went to a stagger screen entry, you just knew that the returning big man was going to roll towards the rim, and Smart would find him.
This was a really cool screening set to get the lob finish. Stagger screen entry - Horford STS - Rob Williams re-screen - Horford Veer - Smart penetrates and hits the lob pass pic.twitter.com/xmc7vuncT8— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) December 2, 2021
Smart is more than just a lob passer, though. He's becoming exceptionally gifted at making reads on the fly, with his decision-making also improving drastically throughout the first few months of the season. Sports scientists often speak of "processing speed" when discussing a player's improvement, meaning they're measuring the progress in a player's ability to perceive an opportunity or action, process what needs to be done and act promptly. The quicker a player processes information, the more likely they are to be successful in making the correct play before a defense (or offense) can adjust.
Of course, processing speed doesn't necessarily dictate a player makes instant actions on the ball; it just means a player can perceive an outcome quicker. This isn't something new or groundbreaking either, as we've often spoken of the game "slowing down" for players as they become accustomed to the league - it's the same thing. So, manipulating defenses with fakes or fast head movements can also be deemed an improvement in this sports science area, assuming the player already has plans if the defender bites or stays home.
With this in mind, when watching Smart's assists from the game against the 76ers, at least 5 of them can be used as examples of the game slowing down for him on offense. We know that Smart's always been a gifted passer, but perhaps the increased reps at generating offense for his teammates has unlocked a new level of skill from the Texas native.
Before watching this clip, please understand that the fact it results in yet another lob for Williams is purely coincidence. What is vital in the above clip is how Smart reads the floor, recognizes the back cut, and then places a pass right on the money while throwing it over the head of Joel Embiid.
Maybe you would prefer this play. Smart knows he holds enough gravity from deep to draw the close out, so he fakes an entry into his shooting motion, then explodes past the defender as they contest with a fly-by before cutting middle and causing the defense to sink. A quick pass to initiate a second-side action follows, and the ball is in Jayson Tatum's hands, which is where you want it to be.
What we learned against the 76ers is that this version of Smart is what the Celtics were banking on when moving him to the starting lineup. While eight dimes a night is an unrealistic target for him, he's capable of carving open defenses consistently. When we think of what the Celtics need to get them closer to the ever-elusive 18th championship, many believe the answer is a true playmaker at the point. Yet, it would seem that Smart is more than equal to the task of distributing and creating offense for this Celtics team.
Now, if he could just figure out his shooting...