A year from today, Marcus Smart will likely be lounging around at his condo in downtown Orlando, winding down just days after winning the MVP award in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. Once his freshman season at Oklahoma State is over, he'll likely put his name into the NBA Draft pool and become one of the handful of elite prospects that teams in the lottery will be drooling over during pre-draft workouts.
Had he left after his freshman season, LeBryan Nash may have been a lottery pick, too, but his disappointing sophomore campaign has lowered his standing amongst NBA scouts. Even though one more year at Oklahoma State sans Smart may be better for his draft stock, Nash will likely be going pro as well, leaving the Pokes without the two best recruits of the Travis Ford era.
When those two end up declaring pro at the end of the season, folks will be looking for the next face of the program. Depending on what school he chooses, stud prospect Emmanuel Mudiay (currently ESPN's 3rd ranked recruit in the 2014 class) could give the Oklahoma State program a spark similar to the one Smart is delivering right now, and OSU's top recruit in the 2013 class, diminutive point guard Stevie Clark, seems like the kind of player that sticks around and grows into a fun-to-watch lead guard.
But at least for next season, I don't think there is much to debate about who the face of the program is. Because that player is clearly Markel Brown.
Brown is an extremely efficient two guard that combines all of the elements you can ask for in a college player into one extremely fun package. He shoots the ball at a relatively good clip (45% from the field, 39% from three), he understands floor spacing and where on the court he can go to punish a defense, he's a willing passer that sees the floor well and he competes defensively. He is also a player whose dunks are so electrifying that a ref once threw him out a game because he was sucking all of the gravity out of the building.
Brown has emerged as the Cowboys' most consistent and potent offensive player this season. Is Smart a better all-around player? Of course. Is Nash a more talented player? I believe so. But Oklahoma State's offense relies more heavily on Brown than either of them, as he's the most effective catch-and-shoot player and someone that can handle on-ball duties in a pinch. Based on KemPom's numbers, Brown is responsible for 25.5% of OSU's shots when he is on the floor, which ranks as the ninth highest shot percentage in the conference.
With a primary ball-handler in Smart and a primary interior presence in Nash, Brown works as a perfect compliment, a player who thrives in the gaps in the defense created by those other two.
His two biggest offensive contributions come as a cutter and a shooter (either as a spot-up shooter or coming off screens). Brown has a great sense for cutting on the fly when his teammates attack the rim and the Pokes also run a great deal of set plays from the sideline and in the halfcourt that allow Brown to take advantage of defenders that overplay his catches on the wing. There is one play in particular in which Smart receives a double high screen at the top of the key with Brown waiting in the weakside corner. As Smart uses the picks and dribbles towards Brown, defenders almost always try to deny the pass to Brown, and with the two bigs pulled away from the rim with the high screens, Brown is given a free lane to the hoop for an alley-oop on a backdoor cut.
Coming off screens, Brown loves to go towards his strong-hand. According to Synergy Sports Technology, of players with at least 45 possessions coming off screens to their right, Brown ranks fifth in the country, producing 1.188 points per possession. The reason he isn't first is because the guys ahead of him, like Rotnei Clarke, are primarily three-point shooters when coming off screens, which sets them up to be more valuable on a per possession basis. But as far as the player most adept at putting the ball in the basket when coming off screens with his strong hand? That would be Brown, who is tied for first in the NCAA with his 54.5% field goal percentage in such situations.
Apologies if that data jumbled your brain, but it paints a descriptive picture of the way that Brown is used in Oklahoma State's offense. He's someone that the Cowboys can rely on to get them baskets when Smart's shot is off and Nash isn't getting touches in optimal spots on the floor. He represents the conventionalism of the Cowboys' offense while Nash and Smart represent their outliers that often make plays out of nothing.
Brown is not a superstar. He's not a guy you can give the ball to with 20 seconds left in a tie game and expect to end up at the bottom of the pile after the buzzer (related: he's 3-of-16 on isolations this season). But he is someone that you can trust making big shots in big moments and exactly the kind of glue guy that you need to make a team reach its peak.
We can only hope that this Cowboy team does reach it's peak, as we're almost certainly never going to see this team together again after this season.
The good news for us is that Brown is likely to stay in school and finish out his fourth and final year of eligibility at Oklahoma State. But how can we expect Brown to handle the transition from perfect third banana for a pair of high usage players to a high usage player himself?
We've already seen Brown turn into the team's leading scorer this year, and we can expect him to carry an even heavier load next season. It will be interesting to see how Travis Ford chooses to distribute to Brown those extra 5-10 possessions left behind by Nash and Smart. Right now, Brown's offense breaks down like this (via Synergy): 22% transition, 18.5% spot-up, 16.8% pick-and-roll ball handler, 15.3% off screen, 7.7% cuts and about 10% hand off and isolation plays and some miscellaneous stuff.
I think it's good for Brown that Ford has recruited a point guard like Stevie Clark that should have a heavy ball handling role as soon as he steps on campus. While I like Brown as a secondary pick-and-roll guy, he's not necessarily someone that you want to be your primary distributor. He is shooting 40.5% on pull-up jumpers off pick-and-rolls this season, though, so a slightly larger dose of pick-and-roll action certainly seems logical, but I still want him to be an off-ball threat the majority of the time he is on the floor. That being said, given the rate that Brown has improved at during his college career, I wouldn't be surprised if he came back next season much more comfortable shooting off the bounce, which would warrant a much larger increase in his pick-and-roll possessions.
Obviously, a few more curl and flare screens will be in order for Brown, but something I have noticed about him in a limited sample size this season that has me excited is his work on hand offs. I feel like Ford should spend some time this off-season looking at how well Brown did when he got space created by a dribble hand off. The Cowboys could run hand off sets at the elbows to get Brown to turn the corner towards the rim and further up top to get him some space for jumpers. With his ability shoot the ball and get to the rim and finish, hand off plays present innumerable possibilities to get Brown good looks in rhythm.
He may not jump off the page at you, but I can see Brown turning in a Brandon Paul-like season for the Pokes next year. Paul is similar to Brown in a number of ways, from their relative height to their consistent improvement over the course of their collegiate careers. Paul is someone whose pick-and-roll possessions doubled as he entered his senior year and he is currently the leading scorer for a surging Illinois team. While Smart and Nash are the Cowboys' stars, Markel Brown has emerged as a force on one of the best teams in the nation. He's also someone considered a second round draft pick, and I think Brown could have a similar evaluation from NBA scouts at the completion of his senior season.
I have a strong belief that Brown will return to Oklahoma State next year and lead the Pokes to another NCAA tournament appearance. While he has certainly been blossoming this season, it's possible that he's yet to reach full bloom, and I think he will be more than able to lead this team - his team - next season.