When the Boston Celtics selected Marcus Smart with the sixth pick in the 2014 draft, it was easy to start sounding the alarms.
Smart played point guard in his two years at Oklahoma State. Of course, Rajon Rondo, the one star player currently on Boston's roster, plays the same position.
But there's more than just positional concerns. Smart can't shoot from deep, and neither can Rondo. Draft picks don't always fit into perfect little boxes, of course, but with all the overlap, it's natural to wonder if Smart and Rondo can work together.
Or if they'll stay together.
Was the selection of Smart a sign that Boston is ready to finally trade Rondo?
Celtics owner Grousbeck on picking Smart : "I don't think this has any impact on Rondo at all"— Michele Steele (@ESPNMichele) June 26, 2014
Let's pump the breaks for a second. While it's easy to focus on the negative and what drafting Smart could mean down the line, the potential positives shouldn't be forgotten.
It starts with Smart's character. Throughout the whole draft process, he was complementary of Rondo and said all the right things to Brian Robb of Boston.com:
Rondo’s one of the greatest point guards to ever play this game. If I’m fortunate enough and Boston picks me, and that means I have to sit on the bench (behind) Rondo, that’s an honor to learn from one of the greatest point guards in that position. Especially with me playing the point guard position, he’s been playing it for a while…It would be an honor.
Of course, it seems highly unlikely that the Celtics would use the sixth pick in the draft on a backup point guard, particularly considering the depth of that position around the league and in free agency. With Boston having so many holes, why go that route?
It's a fair question, but we've seen two-point guard lineups work before, so long as both players are willing. Smart sounds willing.
Marcus Smart said that he can definitely play the two-guard alongside Rajon Rondo in Boston because of his versatility.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 26, 2014
In fact, we've already seen two shooting-deficient guards play well together in Boston quite a bit. Avery Bradley as the de facto shooting guard next to Rondo has resulted in some of the Celtics' most productive lineups over the years, and that was well before Bradley developed real three-point range.
Smart is the better distributor, and Bradley has made himself into a good shooter recently, but their most common shared trait might be the most important thing to Boston's coaching staff and general manager Danny Ainge.
Smart, like Bradley, is a dogged defender on the ball. Out of all draft-eligible college point guards, he led everyone in steal and rebound rate, which are often good indicators of success on the pro level. He'll wreak havoc on that end with his big body, quickness and length, and that's something Brad Stevens likes his guards to do.
Point being, it's not going to be a picnic for opposing guards to go up against Smart and Rondo. They'll put pressure on opponents going both ways. Snuffing out penetration and forcing turnovers is critical for any great defense, and the Celtics have two strong building blocks now in Rondo and Smart to do just that.
Of all traits, shooting is probably the easiest to improve over time with repetition and hard work. Smart has the athletic ability and competitiveness, so it makes sense to take the leap and hope he'll keep developing his jumper. Bradley did just that (39.5 percent from three last year), and Rondo has made strides as a mid-range shooter (50.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line in 2012-13).
Here's Matt Kamalsky of DraftExpress.com with more on Smart's potential development in that area:
Making 45.7% of his open spot-up jump shots, but attempting more and making just 20.4% of his contested spot-up jump shots, there's reason to believe he could improve his numbers with less ambitious shot selection and room for optimism that he'll continue to make strides in this area thanks to his tremendous work ethic.
Truthfully, it's not Smart or Rondo who should be considered the odd-man out here.
It's Bradley, who is headed for restricted free agency and could be in line for a big payday. While you would think that Boston would take the best player available regardless, Bradley's potential salary and Rondo's ability to opt out may have factored somewhat into this pick. It's insurance and leverage along with an elite talent, which may have been too sweet to pass up.
With that in mind, it might make sense to appease head coach Brad Stevens with a prospect that fits his mold. Here's what Stevens told Brian Robb of Boston.com after Smart's impressive predraft workout:
I thought he was good. I thought he was physical. I thought he was a leader. I thought he shot the ball well in drills. I think that clearly, he’s got a way about him that people follow. He is a very tough guy and competed the whole time. My expectations for him were high from that regard, but he certainly met them.
Can Rajon Rondo and Marcus Smart play together?
The only thing keeping Smart from reasonably playing next to Rondo would be the players around them. If Boston can get unconventional perimeter shooting from its big men (Jeff Green, Kelly Olynyk), it doesn't necessarily kill offensive spacing to have two guards who don't space the floor out there at the same time. Defensively, again, this could be one of the very best backcourt combinations in the league.
As for the big picture? Does this mean Rondo would be dangled and possibly dealt at some point this year? Maybe. Does it mean Avery Bradley will be dealt or let go in restricted free agency? That seems a little more likely.
But the important thing to remember is this isn't untenable. So long as Rondo and Smart are willing and patient while Smart's jumper gets polished, the two players can coexist. It's far from a guarantee, but elite talent usually finds a way to make it work.