Though the position is certainly evolving, the traditional point guard tends to play a very specific brand of basketball. The approach they have to the game is often considered analogous to that of a conductor to a symphony or a traffic cop to their corner. Even as players like Steph Curry, Dejounte Murray, and most recently, Ja Morant break onto the scene and redefine the physics of what a point guard is supposed to do, the overall methodology remains intact. The position is one focused on management, discipline, composure, and orchestration.
In other words, Marcus Smart won’t be the picture placed next to “point guard” in your everyday basketball dictionary.
But perhaps times are changing, and someday, with a bit more time, Smart could become the face beside the term. Were he to keep putting forth returns akin to those he’s delivered lately, it’s possible that he would be considered an even more evolved version of the typical floor general — for better or for worse.
Since returning from a six-game absence due to entering in the league’s health and safety protocols, Smart has been the Celtics’ primary point guard. It may be intentional and part of Ime Udoka’s developing scheme, but as it happens, Smart’s dishes often feel instinctive. In six games since his return, he’s doled out 40 total assists — 6.7 per game — and has tallied at least six assists in five of those six outings. One two-assist performance brings down his overall average, but that Smart followed it up with 12 assists the very next night in New Orleans made it feel inconsequential. If Smart’s box scores were a clean radar, that two-assist night would be its lone blip.
While Smart’s passing numbers are down on average from last season — 5.5 this season when he averaged 5.7 in 2020-21 — numbers like these are becoming more consistent for New England’s favorite combo guard. Both are the highest averages of his career; the even better news is that, through 44 games this season, he has a total of 241 assists. Barring any injury, he’ll almost surpass last season’s total (273 in 48 games) and he could surpass his career-high (364 in the 2016-17 season). It took him 79 games to get there. The question this year may not be about him beating that number, but instead, about him consistently putting up nights with six, seven, or even 12 assists. That way, we’ll get used to seeing a higher total for Smart more often, and to seeing a more efficient Smart long-term, too.
Which is funny, to Smart at least, seeing that he’s no spring chicken when it comes to running point.
“First coming out of college, I was a point guard,” Smart said earlier this season. “It’s what I played. So it’s kind of funny to hear people say I’m not a point guard. In high school [as a] point guard, [I] led my team to two state championships. It’s funny hearing people say I’m not a point guard.
“I’ve been doing this my whole career and now people want to talk about I’m doing it more. It’s just like, ‘No. I’ve been doing it.’ You guys are just finally getting to see more of it because (unlike) in years past, I’m not coming off the bench, I’m not playing 20 minutes and I’m playing the point guard role now.”
It’s natural for Smart to feel a mite disrespected, given his confidence overall, but there’s a case to be made that Smart has steadily improved as a dimer, not that he’s always been dealing at this clip. Three times this season, he’s recorded double-digit assists — he managed four double-digit nights last season, when he also recorded his career-high (12). Of course, he’s since matched that career-best total, but the more important thing to consider is that he’s never been this consistent as a passer.
Smart is finding his teammates in all sorts of ways: jump passes (my favorite...NOT), skip passes, drive-and-kicks, et cetera. Whereas in the past, Smart may have leveraged his chaotic energy into passes that would find teammates by the skin of their teeth, he now maintains composure. Well, Smart’s version of composure. And it works.
There’s something relatively fascinating about Smart taking on a role like this: save the Rajon Rondo days, Boston’s recent past with point guards has leaned heavily in favor of the score-first playmaker. The trio of Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker were all capable passers, but when it came to their individual playmaking pie charts, a hefty percentage of the pie was dedicated to their ability to find their own shot, not one for their teammates. It helps that each of them was, at one point in their career, a borderline-elite level shotmaker. Irving, for all his warts, is the best distributor of that bunch. Smart is banging down that door already.
I kid, I joke. But what Smart brings to the table may serve Boston better than the aforementioned explosive scorers. He opens up more opportunities for Boston’s primary scorers, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and when their shots are being taken away by suffocating defenses, he missiles his passes through gaps to find other Celtics on cuts (lately, Robert Williams III has been a favorite target in those situations). But overall, Smart is passing more than ever — he leads the Celtics in both passes per game (50.7) and assists this year, and creates 14.1 points per game on average. His assist to usage ratio (1.19, which lands Smart in the league’s 76th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) is a career-high.
So, what’s the problem? If you feel like splitting hairs — and there are plenty to split — you could point out Smart’s unpredictable offense. He’s oftentimes a walking heat check, a player who has seen his best games often labeled a “Marcus Smart game” due to their unnatural composition and erratic nature. He’s a player who goes hits five-of-seven triples on one night, but goes three-for-20 the next. That he creates offense for others is pivotal, but when he’s leaving double-digit points on the cutting room floor, it’s almost a moot point.
Yet enough of what Smart has shown over the last week-and-a-half should give this team confidence to spare, at least in the short term. If a deal for a can’t-miss playmaking point guard magically appear at the trade deadline, perhaps Boston looks to bite. But if it’s not a deal for an overwhelming gamechanger, they can feel safe standing pat with the group they have. By no means is Marcus Smart perfect. But he’s doing exactly what this team has needed him to do for years.
And remember: don’t you dare suggest that he’s just starting to play the point now.