On Saturday, Marcus Smart made his Summer League debut. On one of his first possessions, he caught the ball in the halfcourt and fired up a 3-pointer without any hesitation. It’s the kind of shot that had analysts worried before the Celtics drafted him — a shot college-aged Marcus Smart would have taken and likely back-rimmed.
NBA Summer League Marcus Smart also back-rimmed it.
Smart struggled badly in the first half, as you can read essentially everywhere. He shot poorly and looked a little surprised at the speed and physicality he was facing defensively.
He quickly improved, however. When opponents drove at his chest, he bodied them away. When a ball-handler tried to pass to the post, Smart anticipated it, coming away with one of his five steals. And, on offense, when he had the ball in his hands, he played well in the pick-and-roll.
It’s when Smart doesn’t have the ball in his hands that things get interesting. After all, the Celtics still have Rajon Rondo, and they reportedly have interest in Isaiah Thomas (although it’s worth wondering whether that interest waned considerably after Avery Bradley signed his 4 year/$32 million deal). But Boston’s roster becomes extremely flexible if the Cs can use Smart both on and off the ball consistently.
“I feel comfortable at both, really,” Smart said. “We have a great guard with Phil, so they decided to put me at the two. I was totally fine with that. It let me get out in the open court and use my athleticism and physicality. I was fine with that, but I was fine playing the one when they moved me to it to give Phil a break.”
That’s the kind of flexibility Boston needs, but will it feel comfortable if Smart is asked to be a shooting guard against true NBA competition? Defensively, the Celtics certainly trust him.
“We don’t really have a true small forward on the roster,” Summer League coach Jay Larranaga said. “We have a lot of really good tough physical guards, and they’ll mix and match…I’m sure Marcus will be on some big guys, some smaller guys. They just adjust really well to what we are asking to do.”
Having Bradley and Smart in the backcourt might work nicely. Smart can get to the rim, and he has good passing instincts. If he’s not drawing fouls or scoring around the rim — Smart averaged 9.9 free throws per 40 minutes last season — he’s an excellent passer in drive and dish situations. If he can collapse defenses, he can find Bradley who (as we’ve written roughly 900 times) shot 39.5 percent from 3-point range.
But that’s all on-ball work. Larranaga thinks Smart can also play like Bradley did with Rondo — cutting off screens and finding gaps.
“I thought (Smart) did a really good job (off the ball),” Larranaga said. “He’s so smart. He can play off screens, off the ball, so it’s more a challenge as a coach to figure out ways to get him the ball. But he and Phil are winners and unselfish guys. I know they’ll do whatever we ask them to do.”
As the week progresses, one of the more interesting story lines to follow will be how Smart plays off the ball with Pressey. If Smart will only flourish at point guard, Rondo is more likely to be on his way out (although the Celtics won’t be so impatient as to make a decision one way or the other based on Summer League). If he can play off of it, and if using $32 million Avery Bradley as a sixth man is palatable for Danny Ainge, having a one-two punch of Smart and Rondo might be worth the shooting and spacing concerns it would create.
“Smart is an all around player,” Larranaga said. “He’s about winning. He’s about ‘What do we need to do to win? If it’s a rebound, I’ll do that. If it’s a stop, I’ll get that. If it’s a shot, a free throw, I’ll do that too.’ The really exciting thing about him is that he just wants to win.”
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