Marcus Smart just doesn't get enough respect.
He's right in the mix to be a top-five pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but he isn't adequately valued or appreciated. Underwhelming and misleading statistics are partially to blame, and so are the phenomenal freshmen he's rubbing shoulders with.
What is it about Smart that makes him underrated by fans and media?
Most hoops fans know he's a tough-minded, athletic combo guard who defends just as well as he attacks. However, his less-than-stunning December for Oklahoma State caused many to forget the little things that make him such a special player.
Defense Away from the Ball
Smart's exploits as an on-ball defender are impressive and readily apparent on almost every possession. His tenacity and talent as a one-on-one stopper is one of the factors that make him such an appealing two-way prospect.
Don't sleep on his off-ball skills, though, as he demonstrates tremendous savvy for his age. He can impact the game even when he isn't guarding the ball, displaying the kind of awareness that greatly enhances his value at the next level.
Whether it's a weak-side block or perfect rotation, he boosts Oklahoma State's efficiency by remaining one step ahead.
In this sequence, Smart's teammate doubles Baylor's Isaiah Austin, trusting Smart to cover the perimeter. Smart has his head on a swivel and reads Austin's eyes while keeping tabs on the two Bears he's covering.
He acts like a football safety in this instance, jumping the passing lane as soon as Austin delivers the ball. The result is a clean steal and a fast break.
This steal is just a sample of the disruptive impact Smart has away from the ball. He will instantly upgrade his NBA squad’s backcourt on the defensive side by focusing and anticipating plays.
We Forget How Immensely Strong He Is
When evaluating the dozens of potential NBA draftees throughout the year, we often use terms like, “he can score through traffic,” or “he’s physically ready to play in the NBA."
In Smart’s case, he doesn’t merely succeed against contact, he thrives on it.
He uses every ounce of his rock-solid 220-pound frame to carve out space when he’s pivoting, driving and scoring. Defenders are often caught off balance as he uses his shoulder and upper arm to drive them back and create space.
In basketball today, most players fail to put up a makeable attempt once they’re bumped or hit in the air. Smart’s ability to finish in adverse condition’s shouldn’t be undervalued.
So many young guards fail to stand out as playmakers because they can’t score in the lane when the going gets tough. NBA coaches don’t have to worry about that with Smart.
Stats Don't Reflect His True Passing Instincts
Through the first couple months of his sophomore campaign, Smart is averaging just 4.1 assists per game and committing 2.9 turnovers.
Those numbers shouldn't alarm anyone, nor should they serve as an indication that he won't be a legitimate floor general in the NBA. Smart isn't always running the point for the Cowboys, so that affects the overall production. And even when he is initiating the offense, high-percentage shots for himself are often the best choice for the team.
When he does encounter passing situations, he is more than capable of distributing the rock. He anticipates cutting teammates, drives and dishes in traffic, and most importantly, controls the complexion of the game by putting his team in favorable scenarios.
Cowboys coach Travis Ford indicated that Smart is progressing substantially from his freshman to sophomore season. He told Kelli Anderson of Sports Illustrated about Smart's quarterbacking:
This time last year, I would be calling the plays, and he would be trying to figure things out. Now he's calling all the plays...and we're a team that runs a lot of different plays and defenses. He's fully and totally in control of being a point guard.
Watch how he comes off a high ball screen, stays patient and tosses a quick, well-timed lob to his cutting comrade.
He makes some marvelous passes by anticipating developments, gauging the movement of help defense and his teammates at the same time.
Smart sees things happening before they happen, and he's patient enough to wait coyly for the defense to overcommit.
His ability to penetrate, draw defenders and deliver accurate passes will translate to the Association.
The Value of Intangibles
Smart's greatest asset is his winning DNA, and it shouldn't get belittled simply as a bonus.
He helps produce wins with his guidance during games, practices and in the locker room. When he turns pro, he's guaranteed to improve the culture of his club.
Several NBA squads suffer because they lack clear leadership, or their supposed leader or superstar isn't a true winner. Smart will have none of that, and he will confidently set the tone for a cohesive unit. He frankly told The Sporting News how he led Oklahoma State from day one:
I brought toughness to this team...We have a chemistry between each other and a bond that keeps us real close throughout the game, no matter what’s going on. Brotherhood: It’s kind of our motto. We try not to argue amongst each other. Once you start doing that, you start to lose focus...I don’t think you can learn how to be a leader. I think you’re born a leader.
If that quote doesn't sell you on his maturity and poise, watch how he communicates with his teammates before, during and after games. Smart is constantly striving to make his group better.
The effort and emphasis on improvement will manifest itself in a continually upgraded jump shot and enhanced decision-making skills. His perceived weaknesses will gradually disappear, and he'll be able to play both point guard and shooting guard efficiently.
With the exception of maybe Jabari Parker, none of the other top prospects come close to Smart when it comes to intangibles and proven leadership.
Smart doesn't possess the swingman star appeal of a 6'8" forward, nor does he have the overwhelming length and upside of Joel Embiid or Dante Exum. Consequently, his draft stock doesn't stand out as much.
But he's got all the makings of a versatile, franchise-leading combo guard, so underrate him at your own risk.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for B/R. Follow him on Twitter: