At this time last year, Marcus Smart's impending debut as
full-time starting point guard for the Boston Celtics was one of
the top storylines for a team entering a transitional season.
Now, it's hardly a storyline at all.
Smart emphatically answered the bell last year, helping steer
the Celtics to an NBA Finals appearance. He obviously shined on
defense, becoming the first guard to win Defensive Player of the
Year since Gary Payton way back in 1996. But he also silenced most
of the critics on offense with a steady, impactful season as
Boston's floor general.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Smart logged 51% of his minutes
at point guard, nearly doubling any other previous season in his
career. Boston outscored teams by 13.7 points per 100 possessions
in those minutes, putting Smart in the 99th percentile at his
position. Positional estimates are always murky, but both CTG and
Basketball-Reference claim Smart effectively doubled his time at
the 1 with a tremendous payoff. He averaged a career-high in
touches per game (65.2) and saw it spike in the playoffs (78.0),
per Second Spectrum.
As the season progressed and the Celtics started winning, the
chatter turned from Smart's trade value to his on-court value
within his team's system. Jackson Frank highlighted for Basketball
News how Smart fueled Boston's
second-half turnaround with his playmaking and his pairing with
Jayson Tatum. When Malcolm Brogdon joined the franchise this
summer, he quickly said that he would happily come off the bench —
meaning Smart stays entrenched at the point.
Smart enters his ninth NBA season at 28 years old. He's likely
reached his athletic peak, but at the same time, he has just one
full season of experience in his role despite being the
longest-tenured Celtic. Is there room for him to keep growing at
this point, and if so, what does that look like?
I wondered similarly entering the
2021-22 season. Perhaps my biggest question mark for Smart was how
he could effectively pressure the basket as a scorer to complement
his innate talent as a drive-and-kick passer. Smart had never been
a particularly efficient finisher before last season, and he wasn't
exactly a slasher.
In 2021-22, that changed — sort of. Smart took 23% of his shots
at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, which was about league average
for his listed position as a "combo guard" and a slight uptick from
recent seasons. He made 63% of those shots in the regular season,
though, which was a 14% increase from 2020-21 and the second-best
rate of his entire career.
Then, the playoffs happened. Smart still got to the rim at a
similar rate, but his efficiency plummeted all the way down to 51%.
Boston in general got stonewalled at the rim, as the team ran into
tougher defenses in each progressive postseason series.
The positive side of Smart's attacks was that, from my eye test,
he relied less on brute strength and more on craft last regular
season. That's something I noted and hoped he would improve upon.
He mixed in some unique finishes and showed off a bit more
pace-changing chops than I anticipated:
But then, as driving lanes started to clog up in the postseason,
he started to sink a little more towards the straight-line drives
and bully-ball shots. The Warriors, in particular, had some awesome
help defense that thwarted some of the advantages Smart created.
Fatigue from a long, physical playoff run probably didn't help.
Overall, though, Smart showed he could make strides as a crafty
inside scorer. He also created more of these shots himself in his
new role at the 1. And with continued development, he should get
Smart's increase in self-created shots at the rim aligned with a
decrease in self-created threes (shown in the Twitter thread),
which is a fantastic redistribution of shots. But there's something
else that's quietly interesting: He also took more "short
mid-range" looks than ever before. According to Cleaning the Glass,
26% of Smart's field goal attempts came between 4-to-14 feet from
the basket — by far a career-high — and he made those at a solid
Some of these shots are short mid-range jumpers, but many are
floaters. InStat Scouting says Smart hit 45.6% of his floater shots
last season. Smart embraces contact, but he also knows how to use a
bump to create space, and as shown in the last clip below, he can
even mix in some off-hand shots:
Using the short-mid-range area gives Smart some extra space to
add onto however he pressures the rim. It also challenges the
defense with another pressure point, which further opens up the
outlet pass. The payoff looks like this, from Boston's first
preseason game on Sunday:
Smart works off a side pick-and-roll with Al Horford, and
Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards plays a little bit further
up in his drop coverage, making Smart's effort to drive to the rim
or shoot a floater more difficult. That means Horford has a lane to
roll to the basket, which is what PJ Washington is trying to negate
by coming over from the weak side. But that leaves
Charlotte vulnerable to a corner kick to Derrick White, which Smart
opens up with a nifty ball-fake and pass. One more extra dish and
Brogdon gets a three-pointer.
This type of pass comes about because Smart challenges defenses
with his driving and scoring. He's already one of the better
passers in the entire league. (I won't bog this story down by
re-hashing that point, but if you have an issue, I can show why
it's true.) Threatening as a driving scorer will only create more
windows for Smart to maximize so his teammates can reap the
The last wrinkle in a potential next step from Smart would be
how he is used without the ball.
According to our own Nekias
The Celtics generated 0.992 points per possession (PPP) on trips
featuring a Smart-led ball-screen — a mark that ranked 22nd among
62 high-volume pick-and-roll players (min. 1,000 picks), and one
that placed him ahead of names like Darius Garland (0.987), Damian
Lillard (0.978) and Ja Morant (0.972). Those ball-screens were
more dangerous when Smart set the pick (1.04 PPP), a top-10 mark in
That last sentence piqued my interest.
Boston tried Smart as a screener a decent amount last season and
went to it a few times in the Finals. The Golden State Warriors
often switched on the screens, so this play helped get Tatum a
perceived mismatch against Stephen Curry (for the record, though,
Curry did a great job of defending in this series). If the screen
went how Boston wanted, Tatum could go to work. Or, Smart could
slip the screen or roll, and Boston could find him open in the
middle of the half-court. Then, he could drive or pass, where, as
explained, he can truly be a threat.