While the NBA's Rookie of the Year award is somewhat of a booby prize, often going to a youngster who found plenty of playing time on a NBA cellar-dweller, it is also a decent predictor of future success. If combo guard Marcus Smart can prove himself worthy of the award in his first professional season, it will likely indicate that the Boston Celtics have a real winner on their hands.
Of the 14 players who have won the award since the turn of the century, only Mike Miller, Emeka Okafor, Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams (who won the award last season) have not been named to All-Star teams. There have also been 24 Hall-of-Famers who have claimed the award.
As the No. 6 pick in what was predicted to be a very loaded NBA draft, Smart already has a steep hill to climb.
When we look a little deeper at some of history's lessons, though, the slope evens out and a conversation can certainly be had for Boston's rookie to have a chance.
What does history have to say?
For starters, Smart's position definitely helps his chances. By definition, guards and especially point guards have the ball in their hands far more than wings or bigs. This allows for a lot more successful plays to be run through them and, of course, more statistics to be racked up.
Five of the last six award-winners, and seven of the last nine, have been guards, with Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin being the only recent outliers. And luckily for Smart, awful team records haven't precluded stud rookies from taking the Rookie of the Year award home in recent years.
Last season's victor, Carter-Williams, shot 40.5 percent from the field for an awful Philadelphia 76ers team but averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists and 6.2 rebounds. Thanks to his team's situation and his position on the floor, MCW played a lot of minutes and had the ball in his hands a great deal.
The year before, Damian Lillard, who played for the 33-win Portland Trail Blazers, took home the award. Kyrie Irving, the 2011 winner, toiled away for the 21-45 Cleveland Cavaliers during the lock-out season.
Boston's season outlook for 2014-15 isn't exactly rosy and has the potential to be nearly as rough as last year's 25-57 campaign. If that is the case, Smart will likely receive a great deal of touches and opportunities to rack up the numbers necessary to add a trophy to his mantle.
The experience level of past winners is also worth noting. Many of the recent Rookies of the Year have come into the NBA with a bit more experience than typical one-and-done college players.
Carter-Williams spent two years in college, learning under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University. Lillard was a four-year collegiate player at Weber State. Griffin played two seasons at Oklahoma and then had another year of experiencing the NBA while injured before submitting his Rookie of the Year season.
Since Smart chose to play his sophomore season at Oklahoma State last year, he has a leg up experience-wise over some of his fellow rookies.
That extra season makes him 20 years old as an NBA rookie instead of 18 or 19. In terms of maturity and ability to handle everything that goes with being a NBA player, that year or two can mean a lot.
Can he get enough minutes?
Before we can start talking about Smart as a potential Rookie of the Year, there is the issue of playing time. More specifically, he has to win over a starting job.
As history tells us, the Rookie of the Year is almost exclusively given to starting players.
Mike Miller came off the bench in 20 of his 82 games as a rookie for the Orlando Magic in 2000-01, but other than that, the amount of games not started by award-winners is negligible.
Smart has to win over the starting job—quickly. Because of Boston's current roster make-up, a starting guard position isn't going to be handed to him. Rajon Rondo is firmly implanted as the starting point guard, and Avery Bradley was just gifted a shiny new four-year, $32 million contract this offseason.
While Rondo will continue to be involved in a swirl of trade rumors and Bradley isn't exactly an incumbent All-Star, Smart has his work cut out for him internally.
The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn recently noted that the 23-year-old Bradley has been working "feverishly to improve his body" this offseason, "hoping to avoid injuries and develop into the Celtics' shooting guard of the future." Washburn also reported that trading Rondo may not be tops on general manager Danny Ainge's to-do list.
While the Celtics are trying to figure out ways to clear roster space before training camp, moving Rondo is not a high priority. First off, Rondo will be a free agent next summer and fully intends on taking the LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony tour of teams and extending the negotiation process deep into next summer. It is highly unlikely Rondo would sign an extension this season with an interested team, especially the Sacramento Kings.
It certainly doesn't sound like Smart will have the inside track to a starting spot anytime soon.
Still, there are other factors to recognize. One being head coach Brad Stevens, who will be trying to establish himself as a force with which to be reckoned in his second NBA season.
Stevens likely won't play favorites by gifting minutes to Bradley, new contract be damned. While Boston's new $8 million-per-year man should have the inside track at starting alongside Rondo, Smart will have every opportunity to prove himself and perhaps usurp that role.
Bradley also hasn't typically been the picture of reliable health during his career. He has missed 54 games over the past two seasons, mostly due to a variety of injuries. Boston fans saw a similar storyline play out when Ray Allen suffered an injury and came back to find Bradley firmly entrenched in his starting spot.
Smart certainly doesn't lack confidence in his abilities. During an early July practice, Smart compared himself to Bradley, telling WEEI.com's Julian Edlow: "He reminds me a little bit of [me]. You know, physical, athletic, can defend the one, the two, or the three spot. [I can] do whatever coach [Brad Stevens] asks me to do."
While the confidence may sound a bit over the top, it is good to hear his immediate respect for Stevens.
With Andrew Wiggins involved in the trade to bring Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, no high-end prospects will be playing on predicted contenders this coming season. Noah Vonleh will see sparse minutes for the Charlotte Hornets, a playoff team last year, and Doug McDermott will factor into the Chicago Bulls' rotation, but he'll be battling Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. for minutes.
Smart will likely be in a similar situation to Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and the rest of this year's high draft picks who will be struggling to win games. He must find a way to get close to as many minutes as those guys.
Can he score enough?
Defense is all well and good, and will certainly be a major contributing factor for Smart to carve himself out regular minutes under Stevens.
However, defense isn't going to win Smart the Rookie of the Year award. The last seven winners have been flashy offensive players like Griffin, Irving and Lillard. Carter-Williams did pick up 1.9 steals per game during his first year, but he also backed it up with 16.7 points a night.
Smart needs to put the ball in the hoop to be in contention for the award. Especially with guys like Parker, who are sure to pack the stat sheet this coming season, also fighting for the honor.
Smart's abysmally inefficient offensive performance in the Orlando Summer League, where he shot 29.4 percent from the field, raises major concerns in terms of his Rookie of the Year contention. Heisn't going to light it up from deep, either. He shot just 29.5 percent from the college three-point line in his two seasons, per Sports-Reference.com.
Luckily, that may not be as big a hindrance as one might think. As we discussed earlier, Carter-Williams struggled mightily shooting the basketball last season, hitting on just 40.5 percent overall and 26.4 percent from outside.
Evans managed to average 20.1 points per game during his rookie year in Sacramento, while shooting just 25.5 percent from beyond the arc.
As a rookie, Rose scored 16.6 points per game with a 22.2 percent clip from three-point land. Even Chris Paul shot 28.2 percent from long-range as a rookie.
Smart is going to have to rack up points, but just because he struggles with an outside shot doesn't mean he can't put up numbers. He'll have the opportunity to score in a multitude of different ways.
Within himself, he has a great ability to get to the line, showing an uncanny amount of patience when penetrating the lane. As a sophomore at Oklahoma State, he was at the charity stripe 8.1 times per game, per Sports-Reference.com. In the summer league, he got himself there six times per game.
The Rondo factor
Smart has one major thing going for him that Parker, Wiggins, Gordon, Julius Randle, nor any other potential award contenders have.
He gets to play with Rondo. If Smart proves himself a capable NBA player, there is no one who will try harder or do a better job at setting him up to succeed.
While Rondo and Smart are strong personalities, the former's style is more conducive to helping out others. While sharing the court, Boston will have two unselfish players to facilitate its offense, which could help nullify the fact that neither possesses a quality outside shot.
After the draft, Rondo spoke with The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes about the Smart pick:
What I like about Smart is that he competes. He kind of reminds me [of myself]. I like the guys that compete and remind me of myself, guys like [Kendrick Perkins].
But not a lot of young guys come in and you can get that feel right away that they will compete. So I think that’s a big pickup for us in that aspect. I think having a guy on the wing that will defend along with Avery and myself, and has a lot more size and strength, that will be big.
Wiggins is in a difficult situation, both mentally and physically. He is going to be asked to carry a hefty load in Minnesota, while also being looked at as both the No. 1 pick and Kevin Love's replacement. That is a lot to place on one 19-year-old's plate.
Up in Milwaukee, Parker certainly can claim to be one of the award favorites, but he is playing with a shoot-first point guard in Brandon Knight and a host of others trying to prove themselves after a dismal and disappointing 2013-14 campaign. Don't expect the likes of Knight, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Larry Sanders or Ersan Ilyasova to be pouncing on the opportunity to make Parker look good, especially if he is stealing minutes from them.
The hill will still be tough to climb for Smart, but the groundwork is laid. If he proves himself to his coach and teammates, and more specifically, to Rondo, opportunities will be there for him to contend for Rookie of the Year.
All statistics and numbers courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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