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OKLAHOMA CITY – Visiting team shootarounds are typically under-attended by the media, especially in smaller markets like Oklahoma City. But on Wednesday morning, a handful of local reporters had staked out the court waiting for rookie Marcus Smart.
Coming off his Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month Award in February, in which he ranked among the top 10 rookies in scoring, steals and assists, Smart is making his first visit to Oklahoma as a professional basketball player.
“I’m happy but there’s still a lot of season left to play. I’m not satisfied right now. This team, we’re doing some things, but we’re still trying to accomplish something,” Smart said of the Celtics and their recent success.
The affable Smart was all smiles while talking to the media about his Oklahoma State University days, and noted that he made the 65-mile trip north to Stillwater, Okla. on Tuesday night to gather with his old teammates. Smart wanted to wish them well before they head off to make their NCAA Tournament run this weekend, where they’ll face Oregon in a first-round matchup on Friday.
“I told them, good luck and we owe them one. My freshman year we played Oregon and we lost,” Smart said, noting that the loss was one of the primary reasons he decided to return for his sophomore season. “Hopefully we come out with the win this time.”
As for his adjustment to the NBA, Smart cited the constant travel as the biggest pain point. “The back-to-backs, the amount that you travel, getting in so late, trying to get your rest, it’s hard,” Smart said.
While conventional wisdom holds that NBA rookies collide with the dreaded “Rookie Wall” right around NCAA Tournament time, Smart’s play has seemingly improved as the season’s progressed. His team has really picked up its play in recent weeks as well; the Celtics have won 10 of their last 13 games and put together a season-high five-game winning streak heading into tonight’s game.
“Everybody’s trying to play for one goal, and that’s why we’ve been clicking these last couple of games,” Smart said.
Smart has been a big part of the team’s recent success, and he’s done it on both ends of the floor. He’s made his reputation as a stout defender with a nose for the ball, a rare trait for a rookie in this league.
“He was as ready defensively as any 20-year old player could be,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said. “I would say that’s probably unusual. He’s obviously been very well coached at Oklahoma State and his high school coach. You can tell that’s he’s not only physically gifted in that area, he’s also very instinctual, and well drilled in where to be, especially in help situations.”
Smart’s shooting, which was a major question mark as he entered the NBA Draft, has improved as well. Stevens gave him credit that improvement, even if the numbers aren’t popping off the stat sheet.
“His percentages probably don’t tell the story,” Stevens said of Smart’s shooting. “He makes big ones.”
Smart is likely to be focused on the defensive end tonight as the Celtics face Russell Westbrook, who’s become a nightly triple-double threat. Stevens called him “arguably the best athlete in the game.”
Stevens noted that his team has several strong perimeter defenders and that Smart wouldn’t be on an island against Westbrook.
Either way, Smart seemed unfazed by the extra attention in the morning. Hopefully that translates to the court when the Celtics, seeking their sixth straight win, face the Thunder just a few hours from now.