Andrew Wiggins was considered a lock to become the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NBA Draft entering this season of college basketball, but Jabari Parker’s spectacular play has made it a two-horse race and even turned the tide in the opinion of some experts. With so many elite prospects headlining the class of 2014, somebody else is sure to force their way into the conversation. Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart is one of those players.
To be clear, Smart has some work to do. But if he can shore up some of the weaker aspects of his game, the sophomore star’s name could very well be the first name uttered by NBA commissioner-to-be Adam Silver in the 2014 draft.
Why He’s the No. 1 Pick
Intangibles are an added bonus for most prospects, and a player’s personality and demeanor aren’t usually the first things we focus on in draft prospects.
Marcus Smart isn’t most players.
Most players would have jumped at the chance to enter the NBA draft as a guaranteed top-five pick (probably a top-three pick), but Smart went back to school.
One reason was to avenge Oklahoma State’s loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Smart told USATODAY:
“I felt like we had a lot more to accomplish. We were a lot better team than that. That's just not the way we wanted to go out. It helped me a little bit to get motivated to come back this year.”
The decision to forgo the NBA draft wasn’t purely selfless, as Smart also told the Associated Press that he wanted to work on his game:
“One of the reasons I stayed was to keep going and work on my game from the arc, increase my shooting percentage so guys play me honest. They have to respect my jump shot and my drive, so it will make it easier for me to get into the lane a lot more and find my teammates.”
Many players are praised for their intangibles, but every talent evaluator in the country has raved about Smart’s personality and work ethic.
Former coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg had this to say about Smart:
Greenberg wasn’t even the most impressed ESPN analyst, as Jay Bilas was in awe of the Cowboys floor general:
Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com interviewed some NBA front office executives, and there was even more praise for Smart. One Head of Basketball Operations told Howard Cooper:
“Marcus Smart's a guy that every GM, every evaluator likes and wants to like just based on his work ethic and intangibles, his physical package—the strength—leadership ability and defensive ability.”
According to Howard-Cooper, a general manager for another team said:
"Teams generally want to know what they're getting, especially picking that high up in the draft. Most teams feel like Marcus Smart is a safe pick, that you can sleep well at night knowing he's going to reach his ceiling, whatever that ceiling is, that he's going to give you max effort. He's not one of these guys you have to go to bed at night worrying about what he's going to be doing."
Intangibles can surely be overrated in some instances, but every talent evaluator, coach or teammate that has interacted with Smart has come away impressed. Despite his plethora of basketball skills and his on-court versatility, Smart's intangibles may be his greatest asset.
Defensive Effort and Tenacity
NBA players don’t stay on the court for very long if they can’t hold their own on defense. Marcus Smart does way more than hold his own.
He’s a tenacious on-ball defender with quick hands and excellent anticipation; this leads to him forcing turnovers and deflections at an incredibly high rate (he was second in steals in the NCAA last year and is fifth this season). The effort he expends on the defensive end is admirable, and his infectious intensity gets his teammates going as well.
His size (6’4”, 220 pounds, 6’8” wingspan) and length will make him a nuisance for point guards at the NBA level. Considering the increasing group of talented young point guards in the league, every team needs a defensive stopper on the perimeter and Smart has the instincts, determination and size to guard both backcourt positions well.
Smart is an intriguing offensive player, but his defense is elite. The NBA team that drafts him will be getting a versatile, two-way force that Jay Bilas called “the most complete player in the country” according to The Oklahoman.
Expanding Offensive Game
The fact that Smart chose to remain in Stillwater to work on his jump shot has already been discussed, and there has already been a noticeable improvement in his shooting from the floor and beyond the three-point line. He made a statement earlier in the season with a 39-point explosion against Memphis where he knocked down five threes:
His outside shooting is still a weak part of his game, but Smart has some elite offensive skills nonetheless. For starters, his size allows him to dominate smaller guards in the post and he already has developed some low-post moves that will certainly help him in the NBA.
Furthermore, he can bully his way to the rim. He has a knack for initiating contact and finishing through said contact while drawing the foul (he’s averaging seven free-throw attempts per game this year). He also has a killer spin move and splits pick-and-roll traps at a high rate which allows him to get into the paint.
In addition, Smart is a willing passer and—while he is still learning the point guard position—he shows good passing instincts and the ability to find teammates in transition, off the pick-and-roll and on drive-and-dish situations.
What Smart Needs to Work On
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Smart will be a star at the next level, but he still has work to do to leapfrog the freshmen sensations that are ahead of him on most draft boards.
Most of that work needs to be done on the offensive end, and NBA scouts will want to see two things from him moving forward: improving his jump shot and fewer turnovers.
The perimeter shooting has been discussed, but his three-point stroke has cooled off since a hot start to the season. Showing an improved shot on a more consistent basis will be the first step to making GMs consider Smart with the first overall pick.
In addition, improving his turnover problems (and point guard skills in general) would go a long way to making NBA executives more comfortable about his ability to make the transition to the pros.
If Smart can make some noticeable improvements in those areas over the remainder of the season and take Oklahoma State to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, he would boost his draft stock significantly.
With some scouts starting to question Andrew Wiggins’ aggression and worrying about how he can disappear for longs stretches of games, the door is opening for other prospects to seize the No. 1 spot in the 2014 draft.
Jabari Parker was the first contender to dethrone Wiggins in the minds of some experts and GMs, but Smart is more than capable of making it a three-horse race.
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