This is the third and final installment of Mark Travis' 3-part series on Marcus Smart. The first two posts can be found here and here.
After you thanked the high heavens and mailed in your check for Oklahoma State basketball season tickets, it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary to wonder why in the world Marcus Smart chose to take the stage in the Student Union on that glorious afternoon in mid-April to announce he was coming back for his sophomore season.
Everybody asked themselves that, and a lot of people still are. For some, Smart's health, adolescent and pride-related reasons to pass up on a top three draft pick will never make total sense. Interestingly enough, some of those puzzled most by Smart's decision to return are his future peers, NBA stars who spent a few days going toe-to-toe with Marcus in Las Vegas last month at USA Basketball's National Mini-Camp.
"He shoulda came out, if we're gonna be honest," New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday told me about Marcus. "That boy's good."
"Marcus is ready to play all of the time," NBA all-star Kyrie Irving said of Smart. "He's a great player that can play with us at this level."
"I always say that I needed four years to become an NBA player," star point guard Damian Lillard told me. "Some guys only need one year and then the NBA wants them. (Marcus) was probably a guy that was ready. I watched him a few times and I thought he was ready."
This was the consensus opinion among most of the players in Vegas. After squaring off against him, NBA players saw Smart as an equal, someone who they viewed as an NBA player. While several guys told me they were shocked that Smart put the NBA off a year, everyone I spoke to about Smart told me his decision earned their respect.
Mike Conley, who left college for the pros after his freshman season at Ohio State, is one of the most well-spoken athletes that I have ever met, and he realizes what a difficult decision Smart had to make.
"You commend the guy," Mike Conley said of Smart's decision to return to Stillwater. "That's hard to do. That's hard to do when you're a top talent and you're the guy. He's a very talented guy, he wouldn't be here if he wasn't, but for him to go back to college, it says a lot about his character and a lot about his love for the game."
When Marcus Smart walked into the Mendenhall Center, UNLV basketball's practice facility and the unofficial summer home of USA Basketball, on the morning of July 22nd, the usually unfazed superstar was feeling butterflies in his stomach.
Even though he knew what to expect, he was still taken aback that he was in the same gym as Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and the like, a mere warm-up session away from scrimmaging against some of the best young stars the NBA has to offer.
"To be honest, I was a little scared," Smart said. "When I first walked in here, they started doing drills and I just kind of isolated myself on the sideline."
Little did he know, the same players that were making his heart skip a beat would be singing his praises and calling him their equal later in the week.
Once the games began, it didn't take long for Marcus to get comfortable in this new environment. No longer was the idea of playing against Paul George or John Wall besetting him, he was too busy invading a camp that was supposed to be a springboard for proven NBA stars, not a wide-eyed college kid. His instincts took over and his pure basketball ability began to shine.
When you're in the flow of the game, just about the only time nerves can truly affect you is when you take a shot. Running your offense, reading the floor, getting back on defense and competing against your man are second nature and happen too quickly for you to become anxious. However, once that ball reaches your hands and you're in a position to shoot, you can get the yips pretty easily.
In Marcus' case, when Kyrie Irving swung the ball to him off some strongside pick-and-roll action, he was the center of attention for the first time all scrimmage, standing behind the three-point line where the only true weakness in his game lies, scouts, coaches, executives all waiting to find out if his jumper had improved. Marcus didn't over think things, and rose up to shoot.
Smart breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the twine tickle. He wouldn't be going 0-fer.
Smart put a little bit of everything on display during the two days he was involved in scrimmages. He made plays offensively, showed confidence in his shot and backed up the defensive reputation that he's begun to build. Though he didn't get as much burn as Kyrie or Lillard, Smart got his shot and made the most of it without forcing the issue in a desperate attempt to get noticed. As we all know, that's not his style. Smart was asked to run point, play off ball, guard some NBA wing players (Klay Thompson and Paul George can both attest to Marcus' physicality on defense), and he held his own most of the time.
On one play, Smart got caught on a back screen and lost his man (Thompson) as he came flying around picks. "Marcus, shooter!" an assistant coach shouted as Thompson caught the ball, loaded up and buried a three.
It was one of Smart's few mental mistakes, and he buried his face in his chest as he ran back down the floor. The next time Smart's unit was on the floor, rarely did his man (Dion Waiters) escape his grasp.
Watching Smart learn and adapt after a crucial mishap against one of the world's deadliest shooters was impressive because it showed that his mental toughness is every bit as important as his physical grit when it comes to him being a successful defensive player. It is these specific aspects of the game that leave most scouts and executives most impressed with Smart.
He may not jump as high as Westbrook, run as fast as Rose, shoot as well as Curry, or pass as well as Nash, but it's how Smart puts the total package together, with a passing grade in every subject on his prospect report card, that makes him a special prospect. And on top of his natural basketball abilities, Smart also displays an indelible determination to sure up any of his shortcomings, and his devotion to evolving has set an unbelievable example at Oklahoma State. That kind of leadership, particularly for the younger teams that will end up drafting in the top five where Smart will be available, is an invaluable quality that sets the tone for how an entire franchise is built.
When a team drafts a player as high as Marcus is going to get drafted, they aren't making a financial investment in a basketball player, they are making a financial, emotional and steadfast commitment in a young man, hoping that they have uncovered the rarest kind of top draft pick: the athlete that can handle all of the expectations and fame thrown upon him without faltering on or off the court, the person capable of being a pure, alluring and loyal face of your franchise and the player who will set an example that an organization can build around and upon.
Even some of the best players the NBA has ever seen failed to deliver that extraordinary return to the team that drafted them. Only legends like Duncan, Kobe, Bird, Jordan, Magic and Russell have ever accomplished as much.
When Marcus Smart leaves Oklahoma State for the NBA next summer, I'm sure various scouts and pundits will find things to nitpick about his game when evaluating his draft stock. Maybe his three-point percentage will still be below the Mendoza line or maybe his turnover rate doesn't decline. Whatever specific aspects of his game they point out as defects, two things will remain true no matter what happens this season: 1) Smart has the ability to have a positive impact on every aspect of the game and 2) Smart's work ethic and command of the room make for as strong a foundation as any lottery bound team will find in the draft.
I'm not sure that Marcus Smart will ever become a top 10 player in the NBA, so it'd be foolish to sit here and say he'll be a legend one day. But I'm sure of this: If his game ever catches up to his character, which is fueled by the unceasing desire to perfect his craft, the Hall of Honor won't be the only hall with a Marcus Smart plaque.