He hasn't been hyped up in his sophomore season, but Marcus Smart is a legitimate contender for the 2014 Naismith Award.
All of the attention so far has been paid to the stacked class of freshmen. Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle have already captivated college basketball fans, dominating play from day one while also showing boundless potential.
After eschewing the NBA draft and returning to Oklahoma State for a second year, Smart is not nearly as sexy.
Not only is he old news comparatively, he lacks Parker's five-position capability, Wiggins' feathery ease and Randle's ferocious physicality inside. Truthfully, Smart can't match any of his first-year competition in the facet that makes each of them great.
Yet each of those facets appears in his own game. At 6'4", 220 pounds, Smart can guard three positions if need be, is making strides to become smoother offensively and has the strength to punish any guard who gets in his way.
Through four games, that skill set has allowed him to keep pace with his competition.
Though the conversation has primarily focused on the three freshman phenoms, Smart has outperformed Wiggins with less talent to support him, while his gaudy 4.3 steals help make up for his shortcoming on the boards against Parker and Randle.
Let's dwell on his swiping for a bit. Considering a nine-steal performance against Utah State is inflating his per-game rate, we can presume Smart isn't going to be able to sustain that production.
But keep in mind that it takes a special player to nab nine steals in one game, the kind of player who averaged three steals as a freshman.
It's clear Smart is as disruptive as ever on the defensive end, but that's not why he returned to the Cowboys. Poor shooting splits tarnished an otherwise sterling National Freshman of the Year season, so the point guard stayed in college to improve rather than enter the NBA with a shaky jumper.
That gamble seems to be paying off. For the season, Smart has upped his percentages from 40.4 shooting and 29.5 on threes to 45.1 and 38.5, respectively.
He also had his best offensive game against his toughest competition, torching No. 11 Memphis for 39 points on 11-of-21 shooting, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc; Smart also added four rebounds, four assists, two blocks and five steals.
After watching him live, a former Naismith winner out of the Big 12 took notice of Smart's onslaught:
Like Texas with Kevin Durant back in 2007, Oklahoma State would not even approach contention without its superstar. That's the kicker for Smart. Parker, Randle, and Wiggins all have highly touted teammates alongside them, but Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash are not on the same level as the likes of Joel Embiid or James Young.
Oklahoma State is currently ranked seventh in the nation. If the Cowboys can beat Wiggins' Kansas squad and finish the season as a Top Five team, Smart will receive all the credit.
In that scenario, he's a polished shooter who can distribute the ball and contribute on the boards, all while playing the best perimeter defense in the nation and carrying his team nearly single-handedly through the Big 12. Other players might have better looking numbers but not as impressive an accomplishment.
Based on that degree of difficulty, the Naismith race can't be a freshmen-only affair. Smart belongs in this race.
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