In my last entry for “Prospects Before New Years” I review the ultimate freshman impact player in Marcus Smart. While Smart has a long way to go before he can enjoy success at the NBA level, he possesses some of the best intangibles of any guard in this year’s freshman class.

After winning at the high school level, Smart decided to join sharpshooting teammate Phil Forte at Oklahoma St. His presence has provided an immediate boost, and his play alongside the Cowboys’ returning talent has enabled this squad to attain a slot in the top 25. The Cowboys’ offense has looked more crisp than ever, and they are sharing the ball. Most importantly, though, their defense has been stifling with Smart as the catalyst. Apart from his statistical contributions, Smart has a high motor on both ends of the floor, regularly chasing down loose balls and pushing it in transition.

While Smart is not yet an efficient weapon at the college level, there are a number of things to like about his offensive potential down the road.

First and foremost, Smart functions as a de facto coach on the floor, initiating plays and making sure that everyone is in the right spot on the floor so that the Cowboys can execute their offensive sets. Smart possesses a good awareness of floor spacing and is constantly in motion when the ball is not in his hands, so as to not crowd the player with the ball. As a result, he is often open on back door cuts and gets a good portion of his offense moving without the ball. He also does a nice job coming off of curls, freeing himself for open three point attempts and drives to the basket. While he is only shooting 28.1 percent from behind the arc, he is much more efficient shooting the ball off the catch. When shooting off the catch, he squares his body to the basket more effectively.

While he demonstrates some promise without the ball in his hands, Smart is most comfortable creating for his teammates and thus projects as a combo guard or a bulky lead guard at the next level. The vast majority of Smart’s offense comes from drives to the rim. He has a below average first step for a point guard at the next level. With that said, Smart is crafty enough to drive when the opposition is overplaying or out of position defensively. Despite not being particularly explosive off the dribble, Smart uses his strength and body control to get his defender on his hip. Smart consequently gets to the line with regularity, drawing 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes of action, good for 10th in the Big 12.

He usually capitalizes on these trips to the charity stripe as well, hitting approximately 80 percent of his free throw attempts so far this season. Because of his 6’4 200. physique, Smart has the strength and hangtime necessary to finish through contact at the next level. And unlike most freshmen, Smart typically plays under control driving to the rim, and is fundamentally sound enough to pull up for an open jumper when defenders step in the lane.

In terms of his ability to shoot the basketball, Smart is very much a work in progress at this stage.  While he does have a serviceable enough shooting form with a high release point, he is connecting on a paltry 28 percent of his shots from behind the arc. This is largely due to the poor job that he does squaring to the basket on perimeter shots off the dribble. It is also possible that he jumps at different heights each time he shoots the ball, which could be contributing to his inconsistencies shooting the ball. With that said, Smart is fairly effective on mid range pull ups in the lane, getting good separation and elevation on these shots.

Aside from his raw scoring abilities, Smart does an excellent job creating for his teammates, which is why some envision him playing point guard at the NBA level. Before going into depth about his passing abilities, it must be noted that Smart is most effective with the ball in his hands and thereby would be best served to convert to the point guard slot. As a point of reference, he currently receives a touch on 27.3 percent of his team’s possessions. Not only does he initiate the Oklahoma St. offense by bringing the ball down the floor, but he is unselfish enough to swing it around the perimeter to execute the Cowboys’ offensive sets. Instead of attacking right away, Smart and his team exhibit considerable patience forcing the opposing defense to shift from side to side.

From there, whenever Smart has the ball in his hands, he is a threat to set teammates up for open shots. In particular, when Smart is able to get in the lane, he typically looks to create for them, either dumping it in to his big man for an easy finish or kicking it out to open three point threats on the perimeter. Time and again, Smart’s favorite target, lifetime teammate Phil Forte, is the beneficiary of pinpoint passes, which enable him to get right into his shooting motion. 

Smart also has an uncanny ability to read defenses, often feeding his teammates on their off hands if defenders are overplaying. In particular, on one possession in Oklahoma St.’s recent matchup with Gonzaga, Smart was able to thread the needle to his big man with the defender almost completely standing in the passing lane. Smart understands the relatively lost art of the post entry pass and regularly uses bounce passes to set up his teammates on the block. He is also adept at passing with either hand. As a result of his court vision, Smart ranks fourth in the Big 12 in Assist Rate. Smart also projects as a solid pick and roll player at the next level because of his ability to drive his man into screens, along with his aforementioned vision and passing instincts. His instincts are particularly important in this regard, and I expect him to keep defenses honest with his ability to pull up from the midrange. Finally, Smart does a nice job of making quick, cross-court passes, which set his shooters up with wide open opportunities from beyond the arc.

With his strengths in mind, Smart does have a long way to go before he can become a full time point guard at the next level. He currently plays at one speed, and has a below average handle for a guard looking to transition to the point. He has a fairly loose dribble, which will be stolen more often in the pros than it is at the collegiate level. Because Smart constantly has the ball in his hands and creates for his teammates, he does turn the ball over at a fairly high rate. For instance, he ranks in the bottom 20 of the Big 12 in Turnover Percentage. If Marcus Smart wants to become a full time point guard, he must develop a change of pace dribble to keep defenses off balance.

In addition to his strong passing ability, Smart is also one of the better rebounding guards in the draft. He possesses the length and leaping ability needed to corral loose rebounds, and generally has a nose for the ball. Smart utilizes fundamental box outs, and is also adept at tipping in baskets on the offensive end against bigger opponents. He ranks in the top 30 in the Big 12 in both Offensive and Defensive Rebounding Percentage and may even improve on these numbers as the season progresses.

On the defensive end, Smart demonstrates the most promise, as he has done a nice job of shutting down his opposition’s top guard. Smart’s length and leaping ability have allowed him to become one of the more impactful wing defenders at the college level already. He has been productive on the defensive end, ranking second in the Big 12 in Steals Percentage (35th in the nation overall) and 15th in Blocks Percentage. He has very active hands, and is able to swipe the ball away from players, but is best at anticipating in the passing lanes, where he is incredibly active. He typically turns these opportunities into break away dunks out in transition, where he is very difficult to stop. Further, Smart is one of the most prolific shot blockers under 6’5, and relishes opportunities to swat the ball away from the weak side.  Smart’s leaping ability has enabled him to become one of the leaders in blocked jump shots as well. He does a nice job of avoiding the body of jump shooters and rarely sends them to the line.

Aside from his productivity, Smart possesses many intangibles on the defensive end. He has tremendous awareness on the court and constantly shouts out where his teammates should be on the floor. Unlike most players his age, Smart has a great understanding of help defense. He is accustomed to coming over from the weak side and either double teaming and forcing a timeout, or blocking a shot away. On one occasion, he was faced with a two-on-one situation, but was able to delay a pass by driving the player with the ball towards his teammate, before recovering to the open man. Moreover, he does a nice job of defending the pick and roll, oftentimes trapping the guard up top. 

Otherwise, he is able to go over the top of the pick and negate any advantage. When he is defending a prolific shooter, Smart face guards him all over the court and causes a great deal of frustration, recovering through some difficult screens. In terms of his one-on-one defense, Smart has the length and lateral quickness to stay in front of just about anyone. He has a highly developed understanding of defensive angles, and regularly drives his man into a bigger defender or a trap situation. He has the strength to drive players off of their spot and will step in to take charges.  When he is forced to switch on a bigger player, Smart does a nice job of ‘chesting’ big men off the block without fouling.  

Overall, Marcus Smart plays with a poise uncharacteristic of most freshmen just acclimating themselves to the college level. He has a great motor and works extremely hard on both ends of the floor. His basketball IQ is highly advanced relative to his age, and his body is strong enough to compete at the highest level. Smart must continue to progress as a shooter and develop a better handle if he hopes to play the point guard position in the NBA. While these are considerable holes and would prevent him from contributing immediately as a lead guard at the next level, Smart is still at a very early stage of his development. All in all, Smart is a high risk, high reward player with a winning pedigree that should entice any NBA General Manager.