It’s hard being first, whether it’s breaking down long-standing barriers or changing public perception. Believe me, I know. As a UK-based basketball writer/analyst trying to navigate a way to the US, I’ve witnessed and experienced the difficulties, the perceptions, and the roadblocks firsthand.
Those struggles pale in comparison to what Marcus Smart is currently battling with Smart trying to lay foundations for future generations. Sure, if Smart wins the Defensive Player of the Year award this year, he won’t be the first guard to do so. But he will be the first guard to win the award during the internet era and the 24-hour news cycle version of the NBA, where the media build and crush narratives at their own behest. Smart will be the first guard to win the award in three generations of NBA players. Let that sink in.
1996— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) April 1, 2022
Cowboys win the Superbowl
Tyson > Frank Bruno
Flying cows in Twister
Seems so forever ago. What else happened in 1996?
1996. That was the year that Gary Payton was DPOY.
During the early 2000’s, we witnessed arguably the greatest influx of guard talent the NBA has ever seen. But those guards all excelled on the offensive end, and the defensive side of the court continued to be dominated by hulking figures in the paint.
With each generation of NBA talent, the game shifts slightly, it morphs, improves, and evolves. Sharpshooters such as Ray Allen, Kyle Korver, and Steph Curry, all helped usher in a new brand of offense. Big men that can shoot the three encouraged the introduction of a five-out offense, and pace-and-space basketball. Over the years, players entered the league with skillsets that were based around those new styles of basketball, and suddenly, 38% three-point shooters are ubiquitous around the league, and multi-faceted big men are becoming a stable commodity.
There’s always a torchbearer though, someone who paves the way for others to follow in their footsteps. A quick look around the league and you can see the remnants of Gary Payton’s game. Guys like Smart, Patrick Beverley, Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, and even Kyle Lowry all walk in The Glove's footsteps to some degree. Sure, each of those guards has developed their own style and has their own brand of offense, but they heeded the lessons Payton displayed on the court.
And now Smart is taking up that mantle. By vying for the DPOY award, the veteran guard is showing the world that grit, heart, and hustle can make you into a star. That athleticism, length, and an incredibly scoring touch is just one of many routes toward making it in the NBA. It might be the best route, and the most common and frankly lucrative, but not everybody is blessed with those gifts, and not everybody has the hand-eye coordination to be a force of nature beyond the three-point line.
“I just try to show different ways. You have players in this league that can score. That’s good, that’s fair. What else can you do to impact the game of winning?... Every kid is not going to be 7 feet, every kid is not going to be Steph Curry, Greek Freak, or James Harden, or Russell Westbrook. The average kid looks like me, my height, my size,” Patrick Beverley said following a zero-point game on February 26, 2020.
That’s part of what makes Smart so relatable. Obviously, his basketball IQ, fitness levels, and fast-twitch muscle fiber composition are all off the charts, but he’s essentially a regular guy. A hooper. Regular height, regular build - someone who you can picture yourself going for a beer with, or getting some runs in at a local LA Fitness.
The 28-year-old has built a career on blood, bruises, and a relentless will to compete at the highest level. He’s a culture setter, a leader, and the Boston Celtics warrior in chief. Those are all personality traits, they’re teachable trains of thought - if you’re hungry enough.
Takes little “talent” to play defense. Takes a wholelotta “want to”. Get every 50/50 ball. If you’re not quik defensively—get strong. Strength hides weaknesses. Take charges. Be a gr8 teammate. Compete. Never be ok w losing. No one remembers the 2nd US President. Only the 1st. https://t.co/98Lo5dkP9K— marcus smart (@smart_MS3) September 17, 2021
That’s why Smart’s push for DPOY this year is about more than recognizing the guard's elite-level impact on that side of the floor. It’s about sending a message to a new generation of players, and showing those already in the league that there’s a blueprint beyond stacking box-score stats to get into a team's rotation.
We’re already seeing the effect guys like Smart and Beverley are having on the league. You need look no further than the Sacramento Kings' recent draft pick Davion Mitchell for proof that defensive-minded guards have a path. Closer to home, we’re seeing Payton Pritchard embrace the defensive end of the floor, with Smart championing for the sophomore guard to battle on every possession.
That same defensive energy is contagious, and can quickly spread throughout a team.
“Look at what he’s been doing since I’ve been in the league. (I’ve) played with him my whole career in the league. My energy, I base it off of his defensive presence. When I see him attack the other team, I wanna follow that. I wanna follow that routine,” Robert Williams told ESPN’S Tim Bontemps in a recent interview.
Winning an individual award is always a great confidence booster, but as you can see, sometimes the ripple effects are far greater. Smart has always led by example, and now he’s doing so on a grander stage. So, if you’re not one to have an interest in end-of-season awards, remember, championing for Smart is more than cheering on a player from your favorite team. This is about sending a message to millions of hopeful ballers, a message that the NBA is changing, and the path towards the league has never been so diverse.
After almost 30 years, guards are being considered for a defensive award again, and with a helping hand from the internet and millions of social media users, it’s unlikely we ever see them exiled from discussions again. Smart has played an enormous role in those developments, and for that alone, he deserves an award.