You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull the mask off that ‘ol Lone Ranger and you don’t win an NBA championship without a future Hall-of-Famer.
Examples abound but you get the picture: there are things you just don’t do.
For the Boston Celtics, that final axiom has been played out time and time again and could prove problematic moving forward.
Boston proudly boasts 17 NBA titles thanks to stars like Cousy, Russell, Jones, Havlicek, Cowens, Heinsohn, Bird, McHale, Parish, Pierce, and many more. Talent abounds on the current roster, which is greener than a Celtics’ fan shop, but there’s some uncertainty as to where the next alpha is going to come from.
In fact, the Celtics are in a bit of a tough spot. The team is a bit ahead of schedule, which is fun if you’re bloodthirsty for playoff basketball, but not so great if you’re in the hunt for a superstar. It’s not their fault, either. Boston finished the 2014-15 season at 40-42, which would have placed them 10th in the Western Conference, and in turn, the Celtics would have received another lottery pick.
But Boston plays in the lowly East, where two floors below ground level gets you the No. 7 seed and the right to be exterminated by Cleveland. Simply stated, it’s hard to find a superstar if you aren’t drafting in the lottery.
For comparison’s sake, take a look at another young, talented group in the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minny continues to stockpile elite lottery selections because the West’s top seven is completely gridlocked. There’s currently no room for growth out West, so the Wolves will continue to draft top prospects, develop, tank, draft again, and attempt to collect a few franchise-changing studs.
So unless GM Danny Ainge blows the whole thing up, the Celtics will have to either get lucky on a guy in the late teens or develop their own lead dog.
Fortunately for Ainge, he might already have that guy on the roster.
Marcus Smart, the sixth-overall pick in 2014 out of Oklahoma State, has the makeup of a dangerous player.
Smart is only Boston’s third top-10 pick since 2002. The Celtics selected Randy Foye No. 7 overall in 2006 and Jeff Green at No. 5 a year later, both of whom they dealt away immediately.
There are many who believe in Smart, but two individuals more so than the rest. One is Smart’s long-time best friend and college teammate, Phil Forte, who praises Smart as one who will “do anything it takes to win.”
Forte has known Smart since becoming AAU teammates in the third grade. They played on the same team all the way until Smart declared for the 2014 Draft, including back-to-back Texas 5A state titles at appropriately-named Marcus High in Flower Mound, Texas. And when it was time to choose a college, the two remained inseparable. Smart and Forte were a package deal.
“It’s crazy, I just picture that little kid back in third grade and now he’s the point guard of the Boston Celtics,” Forte said. “I don’t view him like that, it’s still hard to imagine. There was never really a thought of ‘hey maybe one day he’ll be in the NBA.’ It’s just crazy the way God has blessed him and is using him. It’s just so cool to see his dream come true.”
The other is Smart’s college coach, Travis Ford, who is confident his pupil has All-Star abilities. Ford, 45, has guided Oklahoma State to five NCAA Tournament appearances in seven seasons and the former Kentucky point guard says he watches Smart every chance he gets.
“I thought he was ready for the NBA, physically, and I thought he was ready because he understands the game so well,” Ford said. “And the way his motor runs, I thought he could play 82 games and that not bother him a bit.”
One criticism that has followed Smart for some time is that he’s not a great shooter, more specifically his perceived propensity to hoist ill-advised attempts. The numbers regarding this stigma yield mixed results. No one is going to confuse Smart with Ray Allen, but he did shoot a respectable 34 percent from 3 last season. However, Smart also shot just 37 percent from the floor and 53 percent from the line.
“Everybody thought he probably shot too many 3s when he played for me, but Marcus doesn’t take shots to be selfish,” Ford said. “He really thinks ‘I’m gonna make this shot for my team, I’m gonna make this big shot.’
“With that said, I think he enjoys the power game more; pull-ups, getting to the rim, etc. But he has such a confidence in himself that he’s gonna take the 3 if it’s open, there’s no doubt about that.”
Forte, one of the college basketball’s top marksmen, shot 44 percent from deep playing alongside Smart two seasons ago at Oklahoma State. That clip was good for the fourth-best single-season mark in OSU history, so it’s safe to assume that Forte knows a little bit about filling it up.
“I think everyone would agree that he (needs to improve) his shooting and just getting more consistent with his 3-point shot, Forte said. “No one’s gonna question about how hard he plays or the little intangibles he’ll do to win a game. No one’s gonna question the type of teammate he is.
“I think with the shooting, if he can get that down, he’ll be unstoppable. That would really spread the floor out for the Celtics.”
Smart also gets knocked a bit for his passing, and while Steve Nash he is not, Smart’s assist-to-turnover ratio last season was 2.31-to-1, good for seventh among rookies who played at least 12 games. It also ranks ahead of highly-compensated guards such as Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and Brandon Knight, not to mention teammates Isaiah Thomas (1.99-to-1) and Avery Bradley (1.24-to-1).
“The thing about Marcus is he does everything well,” Ford said. “Great defense, has a great feel as far as reacting to the game, as well as I’ve seen. Just continue to make good decisions with the ball in his hands. Shooting, passing, I think those are all just natural progressions for him.”
So just how good is Smart right now? And what’s his ceiling? It depends on whom you ask. Just prior to the start of each season, ESPN releases a player countdown known as “NBArank,” where the network arranges every player in the league in order of worst to first. This season, ESPN deemed Smart as the 85th best player in the league, good for second on the Celtics behind Isaiah Thomas, who came in at No. 65.
The difference here is that Thomas came in at No. 67 on last year’s list, while Smart vaulted 72 spots from 157th.
Ford predicts a similar ascension.
“I think he’s one of the more complete players in the NBA that can affect the game at a high level on both ends of the court. As he gets older and gets a more defined position, I don’t think there’s any question he’ll be an All-Star at some point.”
One thing we know for sure is that Smart will flat-out get up in your shorts defensively. He led the Celtics in steals and finished second on the team behind Evan Turner in defensive win shares.
Defensive-minded point guards are valuable assets, especially in this day and age. With so many dominant scoring guards in the league, Smart’s bulldog-like mindset is a luxury. Boston fans remember how effective Rajon Rondo was with his length and quickness combo. Now think about the fact that Smart is three inches taller, possesses the same wingspan, and weighs 40 pounds more than Rondo.
“Is he gonna be a guy who goes out and averages 25 points a game? No,” Ford said. “He’s a guy who can eventually average 16-to-20 points, he’s gonna get two or three steals per game, he’s gonna have five or six assists, obviously he’s gonna make big defensive plays.”
Smart’s lateral quickness is incredible for a guy who looks like a middle linebacker playing point guard. His NBA Draft Combine numbers were staggering. Smart posted a faster lane agility time than guys like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and John Wall, while also bench pressing 185 pounds 19 times. Jonathan Givony of Draft Express proclaimed that it was one of the top bench press performances by any point guard ever.
“His first step is so fast and so quick, he uses his strength so well, and he’s so long, too,” Forte said. “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t mind doing the dirty things. He always wants to be the guy to try and lock down the other team’s best guy. Other teams may hate him, but I’ve never played with a guy who I’d rather take the floor with.”
The physical dominance is a big part of why Ainge wanted him so badly. Smart doesn’t necessarily need to lead the Celtics in a bunch of statistical categories to become the team’s best player, but simply continue to lead by example as his game evolves. If Smart can tighten some things up, the Celtics could be in for a big leap before long.
“They’re still a relatively young basketball team,” Ford said. “I don’t know if they’re talking about winning a championship and all that yet, but I’m sure that’ll come fairly soon if they can keep this core together.”
Like Forte said, Smart’s first step is impressive, but it’s his next step that’ll be key. He might just be the guy to lead Boston back to the Promised Land.