ORLANDO — Adjusting to a new level of competition in the NBA was not the only thing Marcus Smart had to worry about as he made his pro debut for the Boston Celtics this week. The No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft was also slotted in the 2-guard spot for a significant portion of his play alongside point guard Phil Pressey in the Celtics backcourt.
Smart spent his collegiate days at Oklahoma State performing primarily point guard responsibilities, so the experience of playing off the ball for serious minutes was a change of pace for the rookie.
“There is an adjustment for [Marcus] and Phil since they are both point guards,” Celtics summer league coach Jay Larranaga said this week. “Even though they are both really smart and really good ball-handlers, it’s not always easy to play off another point guard when you are used to having the ball in your hands.”
As Smart prepares for his rookie season, a crowded depth chart in the Celtics backcourt signals that Smart’s play at the 2-guard won’t just be a one-week experiment here in Orlando. Rajon Rondo is firmly entrenched as the team’s starting point guard, and he will be playing at least 35 minutes per game if Boston elects not to trade him away this offseason.
“Versatility is very important in building a roster,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge told Bleacher Report. “We like that Marcus can play the 1 and 2. We like that James [Young] can play the 2 and the 3 and that helps with injuries, rotations, and it’s easier to play guys that can play multiple positions.”
The Celtics want Smart to be comfortable off the ball, but will he be able to handle significant minutes at the 2-spot? I investigated the guard’s progress on that front after a week of summer league action.
Shooting was probably the No. 1 concern about Smart at the position coming into this week and he did little to quiet those concerns, shooting just 29.4 percent from the field, including 25.7 percent from three-point range.
Other top guards like Trey Burke and Michael Carter-Williams have similarly struggled with their shot during summer league, so the numbers themselves are not enough to make the Celtics worry.
"I really think he’ll grow and his shot -- I think that’s something that will come over time,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “I think the biggest thing is he just needs reps and belief and we’ll help him get there."
When Smart has played the 2, Boston’s coaching staff has tried getting him the basketball in a number of different spots within the team’s offense in Orlando. He’s set up in the post, curled off double screens for jumpers and taken the ball in isolation situations as well, testing his skills in a variety of spots while playing at the 2.
The shot selection has not been great for the rookie at times, which has contributed to the poor shooting numbers, but that should improve with a real NBA roster surrounding him that provides better spacing and less of a scoring onus.
"I think I can shoot the ball, but you can’t worry about the last play, you gotta move on," said Smart of his struggles. "Ray Allen the best shooter in the NBA today, that’s why he’s so good. He can miss four in a row, but you best believe that fifth shot he takes, he’s going to take it like he just made four in a row. You just gotta forget about that last shot.”
The Celtics should be willing to wait through Smart’s offensive growing pains due to the stellar defense he showed off in Orlando while playing the 2. The bulky guard showed an ability to guard multiple positions (including point guards and small forwards) on the floor against the opposition, making him a terrific asset on that end of the floor. His help defense and ball pressure (10 total steals in five games) already makes him one of Boston’s top defenders.
“Marcus came in with a really good understanding of the defensive side, and that’s rare for rookies,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “Usually it’s defense that prevents them from getting on the court. I don’t think defense is going to prevent Marcus from getting on the court.”
Keeping Smart or Avery Bradley on the floor at all times should help create an imposing defensive backcourt for Boston that can wreak havoc on the competition.
Ultimately, as the Celtics veer more and more towards another rebuilding season, they will have the flexibility to continue experimenting with playing Smart off the ball. His offense will continue to be a work in progress at the position, but the signs of growth he showed in Orlando this week on both ends signals that Smart could be a capable player fit at the 2-guard spot long-term.