Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ainge Continues to Play it 'Smart'

Photo: AP/Charles Krupa
Before I delve into how much I love Marcus Smart, yesterday had a flurry of activity from the Celtics front office with two trades being announced within hours of each other. First Brandan Wright was traded to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for a Minnesota first round pick, top 12 protected in 2015 and 2016. It's likely the Timberwolves will be in the bottom 12 for the next two years, this pick will most likely turn into two-second round picks in 2016 and 2017.

While it would have been great to get a first rounder for Wright, two decent second round picks isn’t a terrible haul for someone who had a DNP coach’s decision in his last game.

The second move, which is still pending; was Jeff Green to the Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince and a future first rounder. With the Grizzlies owing their pick to the Cavs soon, it’s likely this pick won’t be conveyed until 2019. It was also rumored that the Pelicans will be involved, so maybe Danny Ainge can squeeze out another pick from them.

But besides the draft picks, I am a fan of this team because it finally gives some clarity for the rotations and more playing time for young guys, specifically James Young. Before the trades, there were 13 guys you could point to on this Celtics team that could easily play 20 minutes a game. With these recent trades, it looks like Brad Stevens has a clear 10-man rotation with Wallace, Nelson, and Pressey only seeing spot minutes and time if there are injuries. Now there will be minutes for Young, and last years’ 6th overall pick: Marcus Smart.

Why I have come to love Marcus Smart

Last year heading into the draft I admittedly was not very high on Smart. Watching him in college I just didn’t see him perform that well on the offensive end besides bullying people to the rim. I was hoping Dante Exum or Joel Embiid would fall to the Celtics, if not, draft Julius Randle. But once the Celtics selected Smart, I quickly convinced myself that it was a good choice. One thing I was most impressed with was his defense, which has been terrific thus far. On the offensive end, I thought he needed a lot of work, and he still does, especially to be a point guard. But he brings his toughness combined with his hard work and competitiveness every night, and has made me fall in love watching him in Celtic green.

Defensively, Smart is a beast, to simply put it. Standing at 6’4 and 220 pounds of muscle, Smart is already one of the biggest point guards in the NBA. But what makes him a great defender physically is his outstanding 6’9 wingspan, which was measured at the draft combine. His long arms able him to get into passing lanes and get many deflections, as well as strips on opponent drives. His footwork on defense is very good as well, enabling him to keep his strong body in front of quicker players. His size and length allow him to cover bigger shooting guards as well, which can really help Avery Bradley on defense, allowing him to cover the smaller point guard. I really would not be surprised to see Smart become a perennial all defensive team player in years to come.

What Smart does have to work on, however, is the offensive side of the ball, but that's nothing he can’t improve upon going forward. Coming into the draft, the main question with Smart was his shooting ability. After a slow start, his shooting has actually been better than expected. Since December 7th, his first game back from injury, Smart is shooting 43.4 percent from deep, a very good number. This number will most likely go down a little as the season goes on, but he has been taking much better 3’s than what he was taking in the beginning of the year.

What Smart really does have to improve on is his driving and point guard play, especially the pick and roll. On the pick and roll Smart has a tendency to not attack the defense and pick up his dribble soon after coming off the pick near the free throw lane area, and look to pass. Occasionally this results in a nice dish to a cutting man or to someone for a spot up jumper, but usually the defense is prepared and forces Smart to pass it out and reset. Smart should come off the pick reading defenses, be prepared to take what the defense gives him. If they are playing off him, he should step in and take that 15-foot pull up jumper, which he is very capable of hitting. If not, attack the defense and get into the lane. Attacking and forcing the defense to react and collapse will open up passing lanes to a rolling big or a spot up three to a perimeter player. So far this year, I have not seen Smart attack the pick and roll as much as I would like, and would love to see him start attacking more.

Smart at times seems like he is just settling for too many 3’s. So far this season, 65-percent of Smart’s shots have been from three-point range, which is a very high number. Given how effective Smart was in driving to the hoop in college, due to his big body, Smart could be a really good driving guard in years to come. While I like Smart taking 3’s and don’t want him to stop shooting them, it's time he starts driving more and working on that part of his game. Now that teams respect him more as a shooter, Smart can attack harder in closeouts to get into the lane and use his big body and long wingspan to draw fouls and finish strong. As a 75-percent free throw shooter, Smart should get to the line more than his current rate of 1.4 times per game.

Watching Smart, you can see some of the potential in him to become a very good offensive player to pair with his already excelling defensive play. For the rest of the season, I would really like to see Smart attack off the pick and roll and attack closeouts to get into the lane, draw fouls, and set up open teammates for good shots.

Smart is such a tough player and hard worker, and I really believe he can become an all-star if he develops on the offensive end. Celtics fans will love watching him play for years to come.

Will Burke
Follow me on Twitter:@will_nba33

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