Marcus Smart's Return to Oklahoma State Good for Both NBA and NCAA Basketball

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Marcus Smart's Return to Oklahoma State Good for Both NBA and NCAA Basketball
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart put off making millions for at least one year by deciding to return to Oklahoma State, and we think he’s crazy.

How could he take that risk? How could he turn down that money? Who is advising this guy?

The system is set up so players like Smart should cash in before an injury, or time tells the NBA that this potential star might not be a star anymore, and that’s the risk that sends anyone with a chance to live the dream on their way.

Smart decided to be different and he decided to bet on himself. We should applaud him for that. We should not question why he would do it. We should question why more players don’t do it.

The list of players that bet on themselves is much smaller than the one of players that choose to go for the green, and it’s understandable. Put in the same situation, it would be difficult to turn down the instant gratification.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

But this is what we forget—the money is still going to be there after a year. Blake Griffin was in a similar position to Smart after his freshman season, and he was the No. 1 pick after his sophomore year. Florida’s 2006 championship team returned to school, won another title and the money was still there. Tim Duncan kept putting off the NBA year after year after year, and his career has turned out all right.

This is a different era than Duncan played in, but that’s another reason to stay. The risk that an injury will end a career is not what it used to be. We just witnessed Adrian Peterson tear his ACL, return to the football field less than nine months after surgery and nearly break the all-time rushing record. Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel tore his ACL in February and he could end up as the No. 1 overall pick in June. 

Career-ending injuries for 19 and 20-year-old basketball players are rare, and if the very worst happens and Smart gets hurt as a sophomore, he should be able to return. 

Should be able to…. is a risk, and that’s why we question this. But we also question why others “who are not ready yet” leave, and who are we to tell Smart that he is ready if he doesn’t feel the need to go just yet?

"I'm aware of how much money I'm giving up," Smart said at Wednesday's press conference. 

The reasons are there to stay. Smart was not a point guard in high school and he has only spent one season at the position that he will play in the NBA. Learning the game at the college level where he can continue to make mistakes is advantageous to his future as a pro. It’s advantageous to the team that eventually does draft him in the NBA.

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to imagine that Smart could grow as a leader, which seems utterly ridiculous to say about a 19-year-old freshman. But Smart is not the average 19-year-old, and we know that now that he’s made this decision.

If you have not read Eric Prisbell’s feature on Smart in the USA Today from January, I suggest you do so now. Reading that story again makes this decision seem like one we should have predicted.

Smart spent part of his childhood filled with rage and anger, and he rebelled. Smart told Prisbell about throwing a rock from the top of a building at a guy on a bike who turned out to be a gang member. That day Smart, 12 at the time, ran for his life as the gang member chased him with a gun in his hand. Smart also lost a brother to cancer and almost lost another to drug abuse and gang life.

Smart told Prisbell:

People always ask me, 'How are you so humble?' When you go through things like I have, there's only one way for you to be. Life is not a game. This is a cold world out there—the world is very cold—and if you don't learn things and understand things, this world can eat you up.

The NBA can also be a cold place and can eat you up. Smart likely would have played for a loser next season if he had declared, and if he had not performed, he could have been sent to the D-League.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

That’s hard to imagine for a player of Smart’s abilities, but it’s also hard to go from a star with the power to turn a loser into a winner to just a player with potential…to a player without that power to change. Very few players not named LeBron James can influence the outlook of a franchise on their own. It takes time and multiple assets to turn a franchise around. Once Smart gets in the NBA he’ll be part of a process.

At Oklahoma State, he has the power of influence. We witnessed that this past season. Smart played for a coach who has never had great defensive teams and his presence, abilities and energy turned Oklahoma State from a loser into one of the best defensive teams in the country.  The Cowboys went from postseason-less and 15 wins to 24 victories and an NCAA tourney bid.

This may sound a little hyperbolic, but if you watched the Cowboys before Smart and you watched them with Smart, it became obvious that team simply played harder because Smart was there.

Smart was joined at Wednesday’s press conference by teammates Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown, two others who also decided to come back to school and put off making money. Their stock was not as high as Smart’s, but in a weak NBA Draft, it seems that everyone with potential to get drafted is taking the chance.

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Smart and his teammates are instead taking the chance that they can make history at Oklahoma State. They will be the favorites to end Kansas’ run of nine straight Big 12 titles. It’s tough to bet against Bill Self even when he loses all five starters, but it’s also tough to bet against Smart and an OSU team that only graduates one player in the rotation.

The Cowboys should be a preseason top 10 team, and they have the chance to have a magical season in Stillwater. Smart also gets to spend another year in college. He gets to spend another year in a town where people adore him.

In Prisbell’s story, Smart’s brother Michael told him something important as a child:

You go down a different path. It's called a straight arrow. People want to call you a punk or different? You be different. I promise you, six years later when you look back, see who is different and who made a difference.

People want to call Smart crazy for putting off the NBA. That’s silly. The money is still going to be there, and Smart’s going to be better for it.

College basketball and the NBA should hope he succeeds, because college basketball and the NBA would both be better if more players decide to bet on themselves like Smart.

He decided to be different. He could make a difference. 

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