This is the 2nd installment of Mark's three part series highlighting Marcus Smart. If you missed part 1, you can find it here...
Even though I was praying all winter for Marcus Smart to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore year, I still find it hard to believe that his name wasn't called during the 2013 NBA Draft. It was an unprecedented decision, perhaps an unthinkable one given the increasing risk of devastating injuries, for a surefire top-3 selection like Marcus to pass on the money and come back to school. Smart's decision is even more unbelievable when you consider everything that he had to overcome to get here and how much more loaded the 2014 NBA Draft class will be, with more star talent competing for those top selections.
But despite these rational concerns over Smart's decision to delay his pro career, you can't totally judge his choice unless you understand his priorities. Smart isn't in a hurry to get his first check for playing basketball; he's not dying to go through a 25-57 season with some rebuilding team that's years away from playoff contention; he's not quite ready to be labeled a "professional."
I think that last part is often overlooked by casual fans when we talk about this player or that player needing to go pro. Sometimes these 18 or 19 year old kids just want to be 18 or 19 year old kids.
Putting them into a professional environment, particularly when they aren't ready, completely shifts the foundation for which they play and can overwhelm them if they aren't prepared. While college basketball is a competitive sport where a lot is expected of the athletes, it's still part of the "it's just a game" phase, and many would argue that is when the game is at its purest. It's also the last time these kids will have total control over where they play, and the connection between student-athlete and university is often deeper than the connection between athlete and team in the pros.
When most top recruits pick a college, they do so with the intention of using their one year as a springboard to the pros, but picking Oklahoma State was about much more for Smart.
"I'm the first person in my family to go to college," Smart told me. "I was enjoying the college experience. Obviously, I turned down a lot of money, but it wasn't about the money for me. I love the game of basketball, and I love to play it. Not for the money, but because it's what I love to do."
"I think it says a lot about Marcus for sticking with what he believes in and what he wants to do," Coach Travis Ford added. "He really wanted to enjoy college for another year. I think it says a lot about our basketball program for a guy to pass up what he passed up to want to come back and play with his team, to play for us and to play for Oklahoma State University."
Clearly, Marcus values the connection that he has made with Coach Ford, his teammates and his fellow students. In fact, Smart didn't want to announce his decision to return if he wasn't alongside a couple of other Cowboys. Similar to when Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon decided that they would put the NFL on hold for a year to play one more year together at Oklahoma State, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown joined Smart in revealing their intentions to stay in Stillwater.
"It was very important for them to come back," Smart said. "Those are two key guys on the team. Le'Bryan has an NBA game already and Markel has the athleticism of NBA player. Getting both of those guys back was a key factor in my decision, because we have pretty much our whole team coming back this year."
Getting the sour taste out of his mouth from the NCAA tournament also played a big part in Smart's decision to return. Aside from a wrist injury that he suffered in the second half, it was the lackluster overall effort that the Cowboys put forth against a vastly underseeded Oregon team that came out on a mission and blew out the Cowboys. It was an unfit way for such a great season to end, and Smart wants to redeem himself, and the team, this year.
"The way we finished last year was a total disgrace to myself and my teammates," Smart said. "I know that I didn't play to the best of my ability. It was heartbreaking to see us play that way knowing that we could have done a lot more than what we showed to people."
While rehab for his wrist is still on going - he's still not able to lift weights or do push-ups - Smart has had an extremely productive off-season. In early July, Smart won a gold medal with USA Basketball's U19 team in the Czech Republic and then immediately turned around and was invited to participate in USA Basketball's mini-camp in Las Vegas, featuring lots of pro talent like Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Paul George and just two college kids: Smart and Creighton's Doug McDermott. You can't ask for a better off-season training program than that.
As Smart and the rest of the Cowboys head back to Stillwater, they'll begin working towards what may be the most anticipated hoops season in the history of Oklahoma State. Smart already feels more comfortable in his own skin as the point guard for the Cowboys. Last year was the first time he had ever been asked to play point guard as his primary position, and he heads into his sophomore season with a better understanding of the offense and how he's expected to run it.
"I've been in it a year, so I know what to expect," Smart said. "I know what Coach Ford expects from me and what he wants. Coming back and being in that role, I can grasp it a lot better than last year. I was thrown into the fire last year, which wasn't a problem for me, but it was kind of like everything was on my shoulders to be the leader out on the court. This year, everybody's coming back, so we have more leaders and more veterans that are going to step up and help me out a lot more."
Smart has already acted as a leader during the summer, as he's helped mentor incoming freshman point guard Stevie Clark about the journey he's about to embark on.
"I just kind of got in his head and let him know that it wasn't going to be easy," Smart said about talking with Clark. "A lot of top ranked high school kids fall off when they get to college because they stop working and they don't really understand the sacrifices and the work ethic that you are going to have to put in when you get there. Yeah, you have the hype all around you right now, but that means nothing if you don't come out and perform everyday."
Needless to say, Smart and Ford were both extremely excited about this season and the opportunities they will have to contend for a national title and to put a stop to Kansas' streak of Big 12 Championships. When top recruit Andrew Wiggins chose Kansas, it only added intrigue to what will be a spectacular season of basketball in the Big 12, and Smart is looking forward to continuing a rivalry that he and Wiggins started during the U18 championships last year when Wiggins played for Team Canada. While Wiggins is a heck of a player and will surely be in contention for the various player of the year awards, my money is on Smart to clean up shop.
After all, he's the one that spent his summer drilling threes off of passes from Kyrie Irving, picking Paul George's pocket and going head-to-head with Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, John Wall and many other prominent pros.
"It's going to make me an even better player," Smart said. "Being able to learn from these key guys, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Kemba Walker, they've been playing for awhile and they know what it takes. To learn from these guys is a huge experience for me and it's going to really help my game."
"And I know that if I can play with these guys, there is nothing in college basketball that can stop me. And there are no limitations to what I can do."