It’s rare that a single draft pick lays bare so much of an NBA franchise’s near-future plans. But that’s exactly what the Boston Celtics did in taking Marcus Smart with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
With Rajon Rondo one year away from unrestricted free agency (and possibly closer than that to a potential trade), Smart stands to be the biggest bellwether for whether Boston’s rebuilding efforts find a seamless stride or collapse to a fate in the Eastern Conference doldrums.
All things considered, the Celtics could’ve picked a worse cornerstone: Owing to a pro-ready combination of speed, strength and quickness, Smart’s ceiling is Springfield high.
Just two months after being anointed Boston’s next hardwood savior, Smart has gone to great lengths to bolster his reputation, both as an unapologetic gym rat and the kind of defense-first fighter Celtics fans have long appreciated.
“That was a big pride,” said Smart of his defense in a recent interview with WEEI’s Julian Edlow. “That’s what we wanted to do. Make our identity as a defensive team, and we tried. We had some things that happened, but we were still one of the best defensive teams in college. It was a big pride of mine and I just wanted to make sure I could carry that over at the next level.”
Whether Smart can round out the rest of his game—his shooting and decision-making in particular—will have perhaps the biggest bearing on general manager Danny Ainge’s grand design.
Judging by the team’s current salary commitments, it’s not a hard plan to glean: By next summer, the Celtics will have anywhere from $35 to $50 million in cap space to spend, depending on how they approach their slew of options.
If we assume the Cs part with either Jeff Green (should he somehow decline his $9 million player option) or Gerald Wallace (whose $10 million tender Ainge will doubtless be looking to dump ahead of this winter’s trade deadline), that would give them the best possible combination of space and affordable assets.
And while Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and James Young are sure to figure heavily into the equation, Smart—a potential point guard prodigy in an age where boasting one has become a veritable must—is the crop’s single most important X-factor.
If this comes off as sounding like Rondo’s departure is a foregone conclusion, rest assured such a belief is well founded. To wit: During a recent taping of ESPN's Around the Horn, Boston-based writer Jackie MacMullan suggested during one of the show’s many unaired clips that Rondo has told the Celtics he is indeed seeking a trade, via Deadspin's Samer Kalaf.
Whether or not you believe MacMullan, the cases of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love prove that, in today’s NBA, All-Star clout can make just about any wish come true.
To be sure, there will be plenty of teams looking to acquire the mercurial point guard via sign-and-trade, and Boston—cognizant of the treasure trove of assets reeled in by the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves—would be wise to hear all of them out.
What that means for Smart and the Celtics, in a nutshell, is one and possibly two more seasons of what might be called “strategic losing.” Indeed, with a full five picks in the 2015 draft—and possibly more, depending on the stakes of a Rondo trade—there really is no logical alternative.
All of which will likely sit just fine with Brad Stevens, the former Butler University skipper signed last summer to a six-year, $22 million deal to become only the 16th head coach in the franchise’s fabled history.
In Smart, Stevens will be marshaling a player who—in terms of style, strength and toughness alike—mirrors in many ways the 37-year-old coach’s most famous point guard, the Atlanta Hawks’ Shelvin Mack.
Mack may have a decided edge with respect to outside shooting, but Smart’s peerless combination of freak ability, fearlessness and floor-general know-how make for a truly tantalizing upside.
In a recent column, Jonathan Wasserman, Bleacher Report’s resident draft expert, emphasized just how crucial patience and prudence will be for Boston with its newfound linchpin:
Questionable decision-making has led to criticism from scouts—figuring out what routes to take for offense versus which ones to avoid. Shot selection was a legitimate problem for him at Oklahoma State, and you can argue it contributed heavily to his poor shooting percentages, as CollegeBasketTalk's Rob Dauster did back in February.
However, these weaknesses aren't necessarily permanent. He'll probably struggle with them early on, but long term, which is how the Celtics should be thinking, he's got plenty of room to improve, given his terrific passing instincts and capable shot-making skills.
Boston fans who happened to tune into July’s Orlando Summer League would’ve gotten a heavy dose of what Smart’s detractors have long harped on: an inefficient shooter who, despite uncanny vision and quickness, can’t always be relied upon to make the most prudent play or decision.
The result: a mixed bag of a week, in which Smart’s raw production (14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists) paled when compared to his woeful overall efficiency (29 percent from the floor, including 26 percent from distance).
A few weeks later, however, Smart—invited to participate as part of the USA Select team—was back to turning heads in a good way:
Rave reviews continue to pour in from Vegas from coaches in attendance on Marcus Smart & Victor Oladipo. Both impressive on practice squad.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) July 30, 2014
With so much young talent at their disposal, the Celtics boast the kind of flexibility essential for rebuilding an NBA team in the 21st century. Over the next few seasons, Stevens will get a much clearer picture of which pieces fit, which don’t and how best to keep the former while jettisoning the latter.
In this respect, Smart is the puzzle boarder—the frame to which all other parts must heed, and from which the form of the image itself is made possible. The trick for Stevens lies in making sure that border is as tight and seamless as possible.
Playing on a team for which losing isn’t exactly part of the lore, Smart’s learning curve is sure to be a steep one indeed. So long as it ends with a rise to the rafters, though, it’s one through which Boston fans should be happy to suffer.