According to Russell Westbrook (link to the video above), Marcus Smart is "nothing special." He's probably right at this point. Through six games, Marcus Smart has had his share of highs and lows. Against the Philadelphia 76ers, he posted a pretty good stat line in the team's season opener with 13 points, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds in a promising start. He followed that effort up with a dud against the Toronto Raptors with a mere 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists. The next game, he spurred (hah) a spirited comeback against the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter that ultimately fell short, but Smart was clearly the catalyst with 17 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 4 steals.
I know I wasn't alone in thinking that the Toronto game was just an outlier and that Smart was ready to turn a corner this year, becoming a consistent offensive threat. Of course, he went and injured his toe the next night, leading him to miss the next three games. When Smart returned, he gingerly poured in 13 combined points in the next two contests in games where he didn't look right. That brings us to last night. Last night, in his annual "Light Up OKC Night," Smart erupted for a new career-high 26 points to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and one monster chase down block. Who is the real Marcus Smart?
Well, Marcus Smart is a second-year player. It's tough to remember that because whenever he goes off and has a really good night, it's easy, especially as a fan, to see him for what he can be as opposed to what he is now: a second-year player. It's a huge reach (but not out of reach) to project Marcus Smart to turn into a slightly-worse Russell Westbrook on offense while still being a world crusher on defense. I've always thought that Smart has prime Derrick Rose upside due to his ability in college to dive to the rim and finish creatively (though obviously not to the extent that Rose did pre-injuries). When he came into the NBA, Smart showed an unprecedented (for him) shooting stroke, hitting at a clip much higher than most projected, and most of those came in clutch fourth quarter situations. It's nice to think of Smart's ceiling, especially with the progress he's made since the end of last season.
Smart's pick-and-roll knowledge and ability has improved astronomically since last season. He actually changes speed using a host of hesitations and dribble moves instead of going 100 miles per hour like he did last year. This patience has led to much better looks at the rim for both himself and his roll mates (Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger have been the biggest beneficiaries). Coming off of an ankle injury that bothered Smart all of last season, a healthier Smart looks to dive to the rim like his college days more often now instead of taking contested 3-pointers like he did often last season. This has added a new dimension to his game, and the more he does it consistently (even just getting to the paint often would be good, let alone making tough shots/passes), the more his career path bodes well moving forward.
Again, though, he's just a second-year player. He's going to look like a superstar on some nights (like last night going head-to-head with a top-5 player in Russell Westbrook), but on other nights like against Toronto or Indiana last week, he's gonna look like a player still trying to find his way. Last summer during the most boring part of the NBA-less season, I went through trying to find games from last season to watch that showcased Marcus Smart at his offensive best. I found a few. There weren't a whole lot, and I had to settle for games when he put up numbers like 16 points and 4 assists. That's OK, but it's not great. He should be making progress this season to the point where I can find more games where he has stellar offensive games like last night in Oklahoma City. Consistency is always tough, but if Smart continues to work hard like he has done to this point, it's not out of the realm of possibility.
That's only one side of the story, though. There were plenty of games last season when Smart had a stellar defensive games. I found a few games that I watched for other players to see them put up big numbers only to be surprised at how Smart's defensive impact indirectly led to those outbursts. Smart is a gamer on the defensive end. He cares not for the opposing players' families on defense in a similar way that Stephen Curry feels on offense. Smart straight up bullies guys on the defensive end, all while averaging a mere 2.8 fouls per game in his six games this season. That number was at 2.6 fouls per game last season. So far this season, Smart has posted a defensive rating of 94.2, and that's really good for, again, a second year player. In one game where Smart had 4 days of rest, he posted a defensive rating of 80.3 in 32.4 minutes. That's stellar. If Smart doesn't sacrifice his defense in order to have more energy on the offensive end, he'll eventually develop into one of the best two-way players in the NBA one day. He's already one of the best defenders at the point guard position, so there's a lot to look forward to in his playing future.
Russell Westbrook was clearly frustrated last night; after all, he shot his team out of the game last night (5-20 from the field overall) while being bothered by Smart all night. He wasn't the best point guard on the floor for once. While his postgame comments came off as salty and spiteful (because, well, they were), his comments weren't far off the mark. At least, not yet. How Smart responds moving forward will determine whether or not Westbrook was telling the truth or sounding like a scorned ex-lover. More nights like last night will help Smart's case.