Marcus Smart stood uncomfortably with his coach Travis Ford and teammates Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash on April 17. The Oklahoma State Cowboys were holding the closest thing college basketball has ever seen to the debut of Miami Heat's Big Three with a
press conference pep rally to announce the return of Brown, Nash and Smart.
All that was missing was some smoke rising in the air.
Thankfully, they left the pyrotechnics for another day. But make no mistake, this was a promotional video for the beginning of Smart's national player of the year campaign.
You know how the college football world tries to hand the Heisman trophy out in October? (Geno Smith is wondering why he didn’t get the trophy, by the way.) Well, college basketball is about to experience the same phenomenon with the return of Smart.
Elite freshmen point guards destined to be one of the first NBA draft picks simply don’t come back to school anymore. The last three transcendent talents at the point guard position that come to mind—Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving—cashed in after their freshman years. It was too much of a gamble to not go pro.
What Smart has on his side is that he doesn't seem scared of the hype—he's betting on himself by returning to school—and he's the type of player who doesn't chase numbers.
The POY awards will be his unless he doesn’t produce what’s expected. Luckily for Smart, history has been kind to the elite point guards who do return for a second season.
Smart stuffed the stat sheet as a freshman—15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals per game—and was in consideration for national player of the year, but he ended up as a second-team All-American for two reasons: Trey Burke and poor shooting numbers.
Burke’s statistics (and we’ll get to them shortly) gave him an obvious leg up in the competition for best point guard in the country. Both players had great team impacts, so it came down to numbers and Smart fell short as a shooter.
Smart made only 29 percent of his three-pointers, but that did not stop him from attempting 131 threes.
This was his one flaw.
He played a team game most of the time, but he did have a tendency to force threes that did not come through the flow of the offense.
Even if Smart would have taken all good looks from deep, his percentage still would have been relatively low because he didn't have a great stroke. This is where he needs to improve the most as a sophomore. History says that he should.
Six of the last eight sophomore point guards to be named first-team All-Americans improved as three-point shooters from their freshman to sophomore seasons.
|Point Guard||Fr. 3-pt %||Soph. 3-pt %|
|Jason Kidd, Cal||28.6||36.3|
|Allen Iverson, Georgetown||23.2||36.6|
|Mike Bibby, Arizona||39.4||38.7|
|Jason Williams, Duke||35.4||42.7|
|*T.J. Ford, Texas||15.2||26.5|
|Chris Paul, Wake Forest||46,5||47.4|
|D.J. Augustin, Texas||44.1||38.4|
|*Trey Burke, Michigan||34.8||38.4|
*Won Wooden Award that season.
You can pretty much throw Mike Bibby’s decline out the window since he was already a good three-point shooter as a freshman and the drop was less than one percent. D.J. Augustin was also a good three-point shooter as a freshman and there’s a logical explanation for his decline.
As a freshman, Augustin played with Kevin Durant, who obviously demanded a lot of defensive attention and that led to open perimeter shots for his teammates. As a sophomore without Durant, there was a demand for Augustin to take more shots—he attempted 92 more threes—and that demand led to more difficult attempts.
Smart has the benefit of his best teammates all returning next season with him, including fellow NBA prospects Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash. That means that Smart does not need to feel the pressure to put up bigger numbers, although history again tells us that his scoring average should go up.
|Point Guard||Fr. PPG||Soph. PPG|
The scoring is not really what makes Smart stand out, although typically that’s what the voters notice.
Every once in awhile a star will come along who does so many other things in addition to scoring that it adds up to player of the year.
Two years ago, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis became the first player to ever win the Wooden Award scoring less than 15 points per game, and it was his shot-blocking that got noticed. T.J. Ford won the award in 2003 because he was an unbelievable passer.
Ford made his teammates better on the offensive end, and Smart had that kind of impact defensively.
Oklahoma State went from the 107th-ranked defense according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency to No. 11 in 2013.
The only real difference was Smart. He has the defensive instincts of an NBA veteran. He always positions himself in the right spot whether he’s guarding the ball or off it. He’ll sag into the lane to cut off angles for post-entry passes. He'll swipe at the ball if the player he's guarding does not protect it with his body.
His awareness was on display in the final seconds of a win at Kansas. With Oklahoma State ahead three, Smart stayed outside the three-point line to make sure Elijah Johnson couldn’t get a three off, and then when Johnson tried to drive past him with a crossover, Smart picked his pocket.
Smart had 99 steals and came away with a theft on 5.3 percent of the possessions he played, which ranked fifth nationally according to Pomeroy’s numbers.
Because he will already be on the radar of voters, those kinds of numbers that usually go unnoticed will be appreciated, as will Oklahoma State’s team defense.
Cowboys Need to Win Big
The greatness of Smart was how much he influenced the culture of Oklahoma State. The results prove that. Oklahoma State’s record went from 15-18 to 24-9 overall and 7-11 to 13-5 in the Big 12.
The defense was the main beneficiary of Smart’s play.
The Cowboys were not that efficient—1.05 points per possession—and they settled for too many poor shots.
The return of Oklahoma State’s seven leading scorers gives hope that the offense will mature and the program will take another step forward, which is what happened to the programs of the eight elite sophomore point guards studied for this piece.
|Point Guard||Fr. Record||Soph. Record|
**Kidd, Bibby and Paul's teams were the only ones that failed to advance farther in the NCAA tournament their sophomore seasons.
Both Ford and Burke led their teams to the Final Four, which got the attention of the voters. The Cowboys will receive national attention if they are able to end KU’s streak of nine straight Big 12 titles.
The Cowboys will be the favorites with the Jayhawks losing all five starters, but the Jayhawks have been underdogs before. If any team can get past the mental edge Bill Self’s group holds over the conference, it’s the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State ended KU’s 33-game home winning streak this past year with the 85-80 win on Feb. 2. Smart played the kind of game that day that had NBA scouts drooling.
He manhandled Kansas, a team full of seniors, by grabbing eight offensive rebounds. He scored nine of his 25 points in the final 2:19, and he had five steals, including the swipe of Johnson that sealed it.
Regular season success matters when it comes to the Wooden Award, as only eight players have won it without their team winning the regular-season conference title—BYU’s Danny Ainge, Kansas’ Danny Manning, Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan, North Carolina’s Antawn Jamison, Ford, Texas’ Kevin Durant, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin and Burke.
Burke was the first player on a team that finished outside its conference’s top three—Michigan finished fourth in the Big Ten—to win the award.
Last season, Cody Zeller was the preseason favorite to be player of the year, and he had a solid season statistically but what he did was never enough because of the preseason hype.
Burke, like Smart, lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a freshman and there was a lot of hype for him coming back as a sophomore. He produced. He handled the hype, and he led the Wolverines to the national championship game.
Your turn, Smart. We’ll be watching.