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The Case for No. 1: Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart

The Case for No. 1: Marcus Smart

POSTED: Dec 19, 2013 2:01 PM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Marcus Smart (right) talks with USA Basketball assistant coach Tom Thibodeau at a training camp in July.

He is still the top true point guard eligible for the 2014 NBA Draft, an imposing physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. He's already so mature as a 19-year-old sophomore that praise of his leadership is constant. He is a defender and a passionate worker. Yet something is not right.

Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, who should be stepping on most opponents, who should be athletically and intellectually overwhelming them, is not. He did in of the Memphis games, sure, a tour de force against a ranked team. Otherwise, he's strung together a series of performances too often forgettable or, worse, regrettable.

Five shots, three assists and three turnovers against Delaware State. Eight shots, five assists, five turnovers against Louisiana Tech. Four times in a five-game span he had as many turnovers (or more) than assists. He has had one game in his first 11 this season where he did not get to the line at all, and four others in which he had four free throws or fewer. This from a player who can overpower.

Smart remains a curiosity in so many ways. He surprisingly passed on the 2013 Draft despite easily heading for the top five and maybe even the top three. Now, while he might be improved with a second college season, he might also be picked lower after his sophomore campaign because the talent level in this Draft is much better.

He quickly showcased his improved range as a sophomore, scoring 39 points (with five 3-pointers in 10 tries) in a commanding performance against Memphis on Nov. 19. It served as a strong case for why Smart should go No. 1 in the Draft in June. And then he regressed.

NBA scouts have taken note. The Delaware State grind can be as telling as the Memphis fireworks. And more pressing questions still need to be answered.

Who is willing to risk a top-five pick, especially in this Draft, on a point guard who doesn't have a good handle, who can't thunder down on much weaker schools and who isn't putting up big assist numbers while running the offense for a team that could have two other Draft picks, Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash?

"Marcus Smart's a guy that every GM, every evaluator likes and wants to like just based on his work ethic and intangibles, his physical package -- the strength -- leadership ability and defensive ability," one head of basketball operations said. "I think the shooting is still a bit of a question mark. He has that huge game against Memphis at home where he shot the lights out. If you'd have asked me after that game, he's very much in the mix (for No. 1). But I think since then he's cooled off a little bit. Either way, I think the kid's a top-five pick, top-10 pick for sure. Just how high he goes probably depends on how the ping-pong balls end up bouncing and what the different team needs are at the top of the Draft."

Smart's shooting has gotten better -- he went from 40.4 percent as a freshman to 45.7 through the first 11 games of 2013-14 and from 29 percent on 3-pointers to 32.1 while adding about a couple more attempts per game from behind the arc. That's still not enough range for the NBA. But any continued upward trajectory will be an important indicator, inside draft rooms and when considering whether NBA defenses can simply sag off and play him to drive.

At the same time, there has been a drop from 77.7 to 70.1 percent from the line, also a consideration for a physical point guard who should be able to get inside and draw contact. The biggest concern of all remains unchanged: Smart had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.2-3.4 last season and opened this one at 3.9-3.1.

Smart may have been able to overcome the concerns in the 2013 Draft to challenge for the top pick, though his chances for No. 1 probably would have faded once the Cavaliers, with Kyrie Irving, won the lottery. The 2014 showdown at the top, though, will be against as many as four other candidates from the college ranks, with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas, Julius Randle of Kentucky and Jabari Parker of Duke all in the conversation. Plus, Dante Exum, an Australian combo guard who will play some point, will join the traffic jam if (when) he picks the NBA over a season of NCAA play.

At some point, a GM is asked, doesn't it become a concern when intangibles are one of the biggest selling points about a prospect?

"If he wasn't so physically gifted, I think that would be more of a concern. I think people say that and then they also get around to talk about tangible attributes. The strength. The defensive ability," the executive said. "Teams generally want to know what they're getting, especially picking that high up in the draft. Most teams feel like Marcus Smart is a safe pick, that you can sleep well at night knowing he's going to reach his ceiling, whatever that ceiling is, that he's going to give you max effort. He's not one of these guys you have to go to bed at night worrying about what he's going to be doing."

Maybe Smart starts stepping on people with more nights like Nov. 19 against Memphis. Maybe he does better with the ball, just as he has already shown improvement as a shooter. Or maybe he ends up playing catch up to Randle, Parker, Wiggins and Embiid through June and needs help from the ping-pong balls on lottery night to make the best case for No. 1.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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