Unsurprisingly, most of the conversations about Boston Celtics rookie Marcus Smart have had more to do with Rajon Rondo’s future than the talented combo guard himself. Most recently, ESPN.com's Marc Stein suggested the Houston Rockets were set to resume trade talks involving Rondo.
However, focusing on him is doing Smart a disservice.
He’ll have some growing pains as he adjusts to the league and figures out his position, but Smart has the talent to be a difference-maker right away.
Boston needs talent, and for all of Smart’s past character issues, there is no denying his physical gifts.
Obviously, Smart’s role could change immensely if Rondo is dealt, but let’s examine his past performance, Orlando Summer League play and the Celts’ current roster to see if we can paint a picture of how Smart might look in his debut NBA campaign.
Smart was Oklahoma State’s lead ball-handler, but the 6’4” guard has the size to switch between both backcourt spots.
On a team that already has a dominant facilitator, Smart will be free to do more work off the ball and log more time at the 2 than he did in college.
In his sophomore season as a Cowboy, Smart averaged 18 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, but shot just 42.2 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range.
He jacked up far too many jumpers in lieu of driving hard to the basket.
That won’t fly in the Association, and Smart’s shaky outside shot will likely limit his role until it improves.
Smart and Rondo could likely play off each other well, but it’ll be tough to play Rondo—a career 25.2 percent three-point shooter—with another range-limited guard.
Therefore, it is extremely unlikely Smart sees regular starts.
Avery Bradley, who recently inked a four-year, $32 million deal, should start and see the brunt of the 2-guard minutes.
That means Smart’ll likely be the third guard, logging most of his minutes when Rondo sits and helping to keep the offense afloat.
Defensively, head coach Brad Stevens may use him to provide some full-court pressure on opposing point guards the way Bradley does.
Smart is excellent at forcing turnovers, averaging 2.9 steals per game over his college career, and has the lateral quickness and length to be a menace defensively.
Most importantly, using Smart to provide pressure would help to keep Bradley fresher.
He’s injury-prone and figures to have an expanded role in the Boston offense this year, so conserving his energy is key.
Alongside Marcus Thornton, James Young and potentially Phil Pressey, Smart will vying for guard minutes but figures to see the most action of any backcourt player off the bench.
Summer League Play
Smart put up solid numbers in the Orlando Summer League, but plenty of holes were unfortunately still evident in his game.
In the five contests, he averaged 14.8 points, 4.2 boards and 4.2 dimes per game, but shot a grizzly 29 percent from the field and just 25.9 percent from three.
He did a good job of staying aggressive and getting to the line, but those percentages are unacceptable.
Assistant Coach Jay Larranaga echoed the rookie's sentiment.
"I think we saw glimpses at times in [Thursday’s] game and [Friday] where he got it going and he was feeling a little more comfortable. So I feel really confident that he’s going to be a really solid offensive player," he said.
Smart had some nice moments driving to the hole and setting up teammates, but still has a ways to go.
Looking at his college shot chart, it’s clear that he is at his best when he’s attacking the hoop rather than settling for jumpers.
Unfortunately, based on his summer performance, he clearly has not quite figured that out.
Smart’s athleticism and ability to intercept passes were evident in Orlando, but so were his shortcomings.
The Rest of the Roster
If Boston decides to keep Pressey, it’ll have six rotation-level players on its roster when the season begins.
Think about that for a second, and remember that there are only 96 minutes available per game for backcourt players.
Smart is gritty and physical, but there is no way Boston could get away with playing him at the 3 for any stretch of time.
Obviously, a fully healthy Rondo will deserve 32-plus minutes per game, and Bradley could see his role increase now that he’s on a hefty contract.
Rondo is also in a contract year, so he’ll be extra-motivated to play major minutes and prove his knee is 100 percent healthy.
Bradley figures to see an increased offensive workload and the brunt of available time at 2-guard.
Young is a work in progress and projects to be a small forward long-term, but he’s likely too thin now to bang with small forwards. He could see a few spot minutes at the 2 as he adjusts to the league and works on his three-pointer.
Playing Thornton regularly doesn’t make much sense for the rebuilding Celtics, but they may look to beef up his trade value and see if a contender would give up a second-rounder at the trade deadline for him.
Boston has incentives to give Smart meaningful minutes early and let him develop, but it’s tough to see how it can trot him out for 28-plus minutes given its backcourt depth.
The Celts could certainly make a trade that frees up some minutes, but as of right now, Smart’s upside is limited by the perimeter logjam Boston is facing.
Expect to see him play somewhere around 24-26 minutes next season unless the C’s make a move.
Because of the crowded backcourt and his limitations, Smart won’t have the opportunity to make an impact like Jabari Parker, Dante Exum or Julius Randle will in their first seasons.
Typically, lottery point guards tend to do better when they are given a starting role and allowed to make mistakes yet still play 30-plus minutes.
Think Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker or Michael Carter-Williams.
Even Jonny Flynn looked good as a rookie starter before his career was derailed.
The recent history of guards like Alec Burks and Terrence Williams who had to play off the pine at first is certainly spottier.
However, Smart’s still going to be a key cog off the bench for the Celtics in 2014-15.
How good will Smart be compared to the rest of his class?
The Celtics offense (26th in points per game at 96.2, 22nd in assists at 21.0) was often anemic last season.
Adding a playmaker of Smart’s caliber should give Boston a huge spark off the bench, and Smart will be able to thrive when driving on second-team guards.
If he can continue to work on his shot, his rookie ceiling will only improve. At present, defenders are going to be playing far off him to prevent drives.
Defensively, Smart figures to be a plus right away. He has a lethal mix of size, quickness and athleticism that’ll make him an instant difference-maker.
Ultimately, expect Smart to average something in the neighborhood of 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 43.5 percent shooting as he makes a push for the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
With that said, those numbers will look a whole lot better if Rondo ends up elsewhere.