Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart has turned heads early in the college hoops season, but is his draft stock high enough to make him an elite NBA draft prospect?
In other words, can he be a top-three pick?
After exploding for three straight 25-plus scoring nights, including a 39-point outburst vs. Memphis, he had back-to-back five-turnover outings and shaky shooting performances. He's certainly a versatile weapon, but has he shown enough to prove he will be a star in the NBA?
There's certainly a place for Smart in the Association, it's just a matter of how high his value can rise throughout the season and where he'll land. College basketball's freshman class is loaded with premier forwards, so it won't be easy for the super sophomore to grab a top spot.
Let's break down the case for his top-three candidacy and also take a look at potential detracting factors that could bring his stock down.
The Case for Smart: Why He's Top-3 Material
NBA general managers picking in the top three slots have a host of reasons to select Smart, and they all boil down to this chief motive: He's a versatile two-way competitor.
In other words, Smart has the potential to impact his pro team as an offensive weapon as well as a defensive cornerstone.
We knew early in his collegiate career that he had the talent and desire to be an elite defender. His focus, intensity and opportunistic nature make him a prime instrument to lock down the best point guards and shooting guards.
His offense was impressive as well, but it had some holes, most notably in the perimeter shooting department.
Smart has eased those concerns so far this season, for the most part. He's displayed legitimate NBA range off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot scenarios. Beyond the arc, he improved from 29 percent as a freshman to 34 percent as a sophomore. And his stroke is only going to get better.
Watch him rise up and splash from way downtown with ease.
When you add an upgraded jumper to the rest of his playmaking skills, he's a complete offensive force, able to fulfill the duties of a floor general or wing, depending on what his team needs.
Smart shares a bunch of traits with those studs: He has impressive passing instincts, can create his own shot, works well away from the ball and can guard multiple positions.
And his strong drives to the hoop are a big plus. Smart's assertiveness is resulting in 11.3 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes (he averaged 7.8 per 40 as a freshman).
That kind of scoring prowess and overall influence on the court prompted high praise from Kevin Durant, who watched Smart's 39-point party against Memphis. OKC's megastar indicated that Smart is more than ready to thrive in the Association:
Kevin Durant was courtside for Marcus Smart's 39-point game Tuesday: "Marcus can play in the league right now. Definitely." (via @USATODAY)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 20, 2013
He is a fierce competitor, an aggressive playmaker and an unselfish, team-oriented leader. It wouldn't be surprising at all if he became the type of NBA combo guard who scored 18-22 points while dishing five or six assists—all while pestering the opponents' top dog.
Who wouldn't want that?
The Case Against Smart
It wasn't long after Smart's three straight 25-plus scoring nights that he showed his ugly side.
His performance in the Old Spice Classic got progressively worse, and in the final two games, he had more turnovers than assists and shot 1-of-10 from distance.
This rough patch exemplified some of the main concerns surrounding Smart's future.
When driving and trying to create scoring chances for himself or teammates, he sometimes gets out of control or is a bit too ambitious with his passing attempts.
Here are a couple examples of ill-advised drives or poorly timed passes.
In addition to the turnover issues and recent shooting lapse, there is another stumbling block that might keep GMs from calling his name before the monstrous freshmen. And it's not quite as changeable as the other ones.
Smart doesn't have world-class athleticism, which is what most executives look for in a blue-chip draft pick.
Aran Smith of NBADraft.net describes Smart's less-than-astounding explosiveness: "Solid athlete, but not spectacular. Not the quickest or most explosive guard...Not likely to finish above the rim in traffic...Lateral speed isn't the best." Against the best specimens in the NBA, Smart may have trouble converting attacks to the rim.
Let's be clear: we're nitpicking here. Smart's quickness and vertical agility are well-equipped for the NBA. However, his lack of jaw-dropping bounce or speed could tip the scales just enough to keep him outside the top three.
Sure, Smart had a couple underwhelming outings in a row.
And yes, guys like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Dante Exum are remarkable prospects.
But Oklahoma State's thoroughbred deserves to be in the thick of the top-three discussion, because he's too useful as a combo guard. NBA GMs drafting that high will undoubtedly regard him as a realistic option.
Don't worry about the turnovers; those will get cleaned up in time, and the missed connections will turn into completed passes when he plays with more instinctive teammates at the next level. Plus, turnovers are a natural byproduct of aggressive, inventive floor generals.
The shooting will also be a non-issue. In fact, his perimeter development will be one of the ingredients that gives him a chance to earn a top-three selection.
Depending on what happens to the freshman sensations and Dante Exum (who could potentially wait to go pro), Smart could have favorable odds to hear his name called prior to No. 4.
His talent and approach to the game are too good not to consider.