Marcus Smart – Superstar Inbound


In a superstar laden league, the Boston Celtics find themselves in an idiosyncratic situation. Full of depth and strength coming off the bench, the Celtics lack something that will set them apart – a once in a generation talent.

"“For the first time in his brief NBA career, coach Brad Stevens will endure the burden of expectations, and that will start with getting this team back to the playoffs. Until GM Danny Ainge starts using the team’s surplus of future draft picks, Stevens will have to get there without an obvious superstar at the helm of his roster.” – Chris Forsberg, FiveThirtyEight"

Take a glance at the Eastern Conference. Obviously there’s the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James and Kevin Love, the Chicago Bulls with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, the Toronto Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, the Milwaukee Bucks with Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Washington Wizards with John Wall and Bradley Beal and the Miami Heat with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.

The list could go on, but the point has been made. Almost every team in the conference, never mind the league, has at least one superstar, if not two.

Where do the Celtics fall in this list? Isaiah Thomas is currently their only real bona-fide star, but is currently coming off the bench. That’s no way to treat a budding talent, if Ainge thinks he really is the key to future success.

What about the point guard that’s starting? The second year, 6th overall pick in the 2014 draft is done with his first full season and looks primed to control the reigns at the point this year. Marcus Smart started in 37 of the 68 games he played in last season, though only averaged a pedestrian 7.8 ppg, 3.1 apg and 3.3 rpg.

What’s so special about a guy who, so far, has the career numbers of a seventh man point guard coming off the pine every night? Potential. developed a program they named CARMELO that allows readers to look at the projection of any player in the NBA. The program takes similar players from NBA history and uses their stats to project the future any one NBA player may have.

Using this program, FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers, Nate Silver and Neil Payne came out with a list of the 53 Best Franchise Players in the NBA. While everyone crucifies the Celtics for not having any superstars on their team, they found two of their very own on the list – Jared Sullinger, 43, and Smart, 13.

Finding Smart this high up on a list sorted with premier, high-end talent may come as a surprise to some. But CARMELO has a lot of love for Smart, projecting him to have a career win above replacement (WAR) that will total at 38.2. His five comparables are no other than last year’s MVP runner-up James Harden, Paul George, Jason Richardson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Vladimir Radmonovic.

"CARMELO ranks him just above the 75th percentile for his defense, giving him a +1.2. To put that in perspective, Chris Paul is given a +0.5, and is widely considered as one of the best defending point guards in the game."

With Harden ranking third on the list, you have to like the Celtic’s chances that they’ve found at least one of their future superstars already. Smart is stout on defense – a trait that almost earned him an all-rookie team invitation as a player that mostly came off of the bench.

CARMELO ranks him just above the 75th percentile for his defense, giving him a +1.2. To put that in perspective, Chris Paul is given a +0.5, and is widely considered as one of the best defending point guards in the game.

If you watched last night’s game against the 76ers then you may have noticed Smart’s uncanny ability to get in front of a driving defender to take the charge. And if you didn’t, Tommy Heinson repeatedly let you know. Phrases that stood out were, ‘He knows what the defender is going to do before he even knows,’ and ‘Again! He always knows where they’re going to go.’

Smart’s knock in his young career has been his shooting, which CARMELO, and the rest of the NBA, ranks as below average. Smart only has a 49% true shooting percentage, placing him somewhere in the 15-20th percenticle.

His comparable companion, Harden, harbors a 61% true shooting percentage – near the 99th percentile in the NBA. Harden sits just a shade below perhaps the NBA’s most prolific shooter, Stephen Curry, who tops the throne at 62%. Glimpses of pull up three’s this early in the season are nothing but gold for playoff hungry fans.

If Smart can raise his true shooting percentage just 5 points, he’ll be at the same level of shooting as athletic phenom Russell Westbrook, who sits in the 60th percentile.

To contextualize all of this, what the Celtics have in their hands is a starting point guard that has better defensive skills at age 21 than Paul currently has in his prime, but a lack of ball skills in an increasingly guard driven, small ball league. How is this valuable in today’s meta game, where the three pointer is the most valued shot selection?

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Much to the effect we see in football with Revis Island, Smart can lock down the opposition, rendering him useless. This is extremely valuable in the long run, because then it becomes a 4 on 5 game in favor of the Celtics. With the amount of depth they have on the bench, they can keep that favor going for them even when Smart takes a breather.

There is one area where Smart ranks horribly in and that’s his assist percentage. Smart has a 16% assist percentage, whereas league leaders such as Paul and John Wall sit at 44% and 42%, respectively. To give you an idea of how bad this is, Demarcus Cousins even scrapes together a 19% assist percentage.

We can already see this rating rising through a small sample size. Smart dished out 5 assists last night against the 76ers, up 2 from his 2014-2015 average. Though this is just one game, the increased availability of depth on the bench and Brad Steven’s counter-style defense can only serve to help Smart improve that area of his game, even as quickly as this year.

With a never-ending carousel of athletic, high energy options, Smart may not have to shoot as much but instead have the opportunity to look for back door passes and swings out to the wing more. This only serves to improve his true shooting percentage as he’ll have more quality shots to take instead of having to create his own later in the game when everyone is trying to catch their second wind.

FiveThirtyEight’s projections currently have the Celtics pinned to take second place with 51 wins in the Eastern conference this season. That’s a gaudy projection, but not impossible. With dwindling talent in their conference, and a high paced system that matches the Western conference, the Celtics could very well come close to 45+ wins. Everyone thought the playoffs was out of the realm of possibility last year, but now it’s almost a requirement.

Luckily for the Celtics’ starting five, these expectations won’t fall solely on their shoulders. With a beefed up bench that has teams drooling all over the league, they can start players like Smart knowing that if he has an off game, Thomas is there to take his place. It will be interesting to watch and see, though, if bench depth can outpace all-stars.

Is Smart the superstar who will take us to the Conference Finals? Probably not, but the Celtics have a number of draft picks available in the upcoming draft to either trade for or draft one, including a highly coveted Brooklyn Nets first rounder, so the cavalry is on the way. Is he a key part of the defense first philosophy that Stevens is building in Boston? You bet. That’s where he’ll earn his stay and reputation as one of the best defenders in the league.

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