Marcus Smart didn't take long to establish himself as a prime-time NBA prospect. His Oklahoma State Cowboys had ups and downs, but his identity as a trusted lead guard never wavered.
Smart made rare 2014 draft waves after recently telling Marc Spears of Yahoo! that he'll be leaving after this season to pursue his NBA career.
Many were baffled by his decision to return to college in May, as some projected him as a No. 1 overall candidate in the 2013 draft.
He averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, but it wasn't the numbers that blew us all away. Instead, we were impressed by his intangibles—the toughness, timeliness and unselfishness that put his two-way skill set over the top.
In terms of the transition, there's no question he's an impact NBA player. The question is whether or not we're talking valued supporting cast member or All-Star cornerstone.
The answer will likely come down to his ability to find a niche as a combo guard.
Smart stands 6'4'', 225 pounds with a strong, imposing frame. You won't find too many ball-handlers more physical than him.
Offensively, he's a scorer with a point guard's mindset, which is rare. Usually, combo guards are undersized scorers forced to run the point because they're unable to match up with NBA 2s.
But Smart is different. He can handle either position, with the instincts of a 1, the size of a 2 and the skill set of both.
Few guards are capable of playing on and off the ball in a full-time role.
If Smart maximizes his potential as an NBA player, his best-case comparison will be James Harden of the Houston Rockets.
Harden averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 boards last season. He emerged as an NBA superstar, as a volume scorer and situational distributor.
With the ball in his hands, Smart can create for himself or set up a teammate. He actively looks up to find the open man and waits for scoring opportunities to develop, whether they're for him or his teammates.
Check out how he can draw the attention of the defense and cause them to miss the sneaky backdoor cutter:
He has excellent peripheral vision and always remains aware of what's going on around him. He keeps his teammates on their toes, who know that a pass or scoring opportunity can come their way whenever Smart has the ball.
Take a look at this touch pass that catches the defense sleeping:
As a scorer, Smart has no difficultly creating off the dribble and separating from defenders. He's capable of breaking down the defense, bouncing and weaving through traffic before knocking down shots off-balance.
Tied up with 10 seconds remaining against Iowa State, Oklahoma State gave Smart the rock and let him go to work:
In the open floor, both Smart and Harden are missiles who can change direction on the dime. Houston led the NBA in pace, according to John Hollinger's advanced stats. One of the reasons the Rockets pushed the ball was to get Harden going in transition, where he's tough to contain at full speed.
Smart has a similar combination of power, speed, explosiveness and anger. No play sums that up better than this steal for a coast-to-coast throwdown.
Few primary ball-handlers are also known as defensive assets. But both Smart and Harden are playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Smart is an aggressive and active defender, particularly on the ball. He has an overwhelming blend of strength and quickness, which makes it difficult for opposing ball-handlers to operate with comfort.
Watch how he shadows his assignment before making a move and stripping him at half court. He averaged three steals a game as a freshman, so this was a routine occurrence.
Smart's weaknesses are his efficiency and consistency.
In the worst-case scenario, the team that drafts him will gain a valuable supporting playmaker like Jarrett Jack of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jack isn't a natural point guard, but he's not a shooting guard either. A player having no true position usually results in up-and-down performances based on matchups. Therefore, NBA teams have been reluctant to start him and instead found success by letting him inject some offense off the bench.
As a freshman, Smart only shot 40 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three. And though those numbers aren't pretty, his shooting isn't a major concern. His poor percentages were more reflective of his questionable shot selection.
Jack has struggled with this throughout his career as well. Both of these guys can shoot, but knowing when to let it go will increase their efficiency and consistency as scorers.
Smart also turned over the ball 3.4 times a game. Sometimes, he just tries to do too much. Once he gains a feel for when to settle down and pull it back, he will maximize his team's possessions.
We've seen Jack go off for some big games in the playoffs, but his inability to do it regularly has kept him from reaching that next level of stardom. Smart will face similar challenges when he finally makes the jump.
Smart's talent, work ethic, competitiveness and physical tools all spell long-term NBA starter. If he can remain consistently productive as a combo guard—which not many have done—he'll take over lead-guard duties for a team in a full-time role.
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