On the heels of a 40-win season that secured the East's No. 7 seed, the Boston Celtics seem to be on the verge of something. One's tempted to describe that "something" as special, but that all depends. And it depends in large part on second-year point guard Marcus Smart.
The 21-year-old tallied 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds in his first summer-league game of the offseason, a dichotomous performance that epitomized Smart's challenges and opportunities alike. He got to the free-throw line 13 times and demonstrated an unrelenting aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, adding two steals and a block to his line.
But the Oklahoma State product also converted on just six of his 20 field-goal attempts, going 2-of-10 from beyond the three-point arc. Through four summer-league appearances, Smart is making just 32.8 percent of his field-goal attempts, and his most recent outing against the Miami Heat was particularly troubling. Though Boston emerged victorious (primarily on account of its second unit), Smart was only 1-of-11 from the field on Wednesday—easily his worst performance of the summer.
The good news is that Smart has otherwise been quite productive, averaging 18.2 points and 5.2 assists per contest despite the inefficient shooting. The other good news is that this summer is just another opportunity to grow.
"You've got to put in the time and the work, and Marcus is putting in the work," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge recently said in Las Vegas, according to the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach. "That's the kind of leadership he needs to show, but it's also what he needs to reach his full potential. I wish all of our players would do that."
It's not the first time Ainge has seen a gritty, young floor general with early leadership potential. Rajon Rondo demonstrated similar traits en route to becoming a four-time All-Star, and Smart could be on the way to similar results.
"Marcus has taken a real leadership role with our group of young guys being here this summer," Ainge added to CSN's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. "He's a fierce competitor, his shooting is improving. We couldn't be more excited with his future."
Smart is taking his personal development seriously, and—like Ainge—head coach Brad Stevens has taken notice.
"I mean, he's a competitive guy, and he wants to be really good," Stevens told the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett in Las Vegas on Tuesday. "I'm sure you've seen it where guys play a lot in their first year and then they play in summer league and may not have the same edge because they played an 82-game season of regular games.
"That’s not the case with him. Not at all. I don't think anybody can question that. He's a competitor. He's a competitor, and competitors don't turn themselves off."
Smart's ever-running motor could pay serious dividends this summer and potentially translate into improvement in the season ahead. The 6'4" floor general averaged 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27 minutes per contest last season. His strong rookie campaign included 38 starts that offered the fans and front office alike a taste of the franchise's promising future.
There certainly remains some room for growth, particularly in terms of Smart's shooting and playmaking instincts. He only made 36.7 percent of his field-goal attempts a season ago, and that's not going to get it done for a starter in what's become a point guard's league. And while the Celtics shared the ball well as a team last season (ranking fifth league-wide with 24.3 dimes per contest), they could certainly use more setups from their starting point guard.
Smart's offensive development is instrumental to Boston's hopes of using spark plug Isaiah Thomas as a scoring-minded sixth man. That's a luxury the team could ill afford if Smart stagnates or takes a step back, an eventuality that might prompt Stevens to promote Thomas to the starting lineup.
So the time for Smart to prove himself is now. Ainge's roster may be fresh off a rebuild, but there are suddenly very real expectations after a postseason appearance, and Smart is one key to averting disappointment.
It's a lot of pressure for a second-year player, but that's certainly not unheard of among prized lottery picks. Smart was selected with the No. 6 overall pick in 2014, and his rapid emergence explained in part why the organization was so comfortable parting ways with longtime point guard Rajon Rondo.
Those are big shoes to fill, and it goes without saying Smart will likely become a very different type of player. But he has the chance to be a pretty good one.
"I just think he’s advanced from where he was," Stevens told Bulpett of Smart's development this week. "I still think he can improve his decision-making and when to attack and when to pull back and all that other stuff.
"But as far as competitiveness and as far as being a guy that can make plays and we feel good about, yeah. And the good news is he can still get better, too."
The offensive game may be a work in progress, but there has been improvement according to Stevens.
"He's a better shooter," Stevens added. "He's always seen the floor well, but he's technically a little bit better passer. He gets rid of the ball quicker. He's got more creative, crafty passes than he probably had."
Ainge and Stevens seem to be on the same page, viewing Smart as a potential franchise player who's still in the nascent stages of his evolution. The sooner he turns the corner, the better. Patience may be a virtue, but the Celtics are poised to take another step after the additions of big men Amir Johnson and David Lee. This team should be more polished and experienced than its predecessor, a good bet to compete for the Eastern Conference's fifth or sixth seed.
It's unlikely the Celtics immediately join a list of would-be contenders that includes the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards. But that's the long-term hope, a hope that depends in part on just how high Smart's ceiling is.
Assuming he remains with the franchise, anyway. There were rumors around draft time that involved Smart heading to the Philadelphia 76ers in a package for Nerlens Noel and the No. 3 overall selection, according to the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner (h/t NESN.com's Zack Cox). So the Celtics are apparently open to moving him for the right asset, a luxury they have with Thomas (and rookie Terry Rozier) in the fold.
Speculation aside, Boston's in a strong position with Smart. He's not yet a complete product. He may never be.
But he is a ridiculously hard worker with all kinds of potential. That Celtics can't afford to give up on that just yet.