Over the last few weeks, Marcus Smart has made the leap from the best freshmen discussion, both in the Big 12 and nationally, to the best player discussion. While even the most talented freshmen point guards can struggle with the steep learning curve at the position, Smart has thrived despite being given the keys to the Oklahoma State offense as soon as he walked on campus. Two things separate Smart from his peers: an unparalleled combination of size and strength and an unusually strong feel for the game for such a young player.
At first glance, Smart looks less like a basketball player and more like a football player biding time in the gym before spring practice begins. He's an excellent athlete with broad shoulders and a massive 6'4, 225-pound frame, allowing him to bully smaller defenders and go wherever he wants on the court. He can be nearly unstoppable on drives to the rim, dipping his shoulder and bursting through the defense like a running back. It's not hard to imagine him as a dual-threat QB in the new spread-era of football, with the ability to beat a defense with both his arm and his legs.
Just as importantly, his mental grasp of the game is as strong as his physical one. Smart's been pegged as a combo guard solely because of his size, not any inability to run the point. He rarely gets sped up on offense, controls the tempo of the game and is always looking to set up his teammates for easy shots. He plays the game with the confidence and savvy of a 2-3 year veteran. The contrast between Smart and LeBryan Nash, a highly-touted sophomore forward still learning to translate his physical superiority into on-court production, is glaring.
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State's head coach, has given Smart as much offensive responsibility as anyone in the country. The Cowboys don't get much offense from their big men, can't space the floor very well and don't have many other playmakers on their roster. To be competitive on a nightly basis, they depend on Smart running the show and knowing when to create shots for his teammates and when to call his own number. It's a huge burden to place on a freshman PG, particularly when he's one of six freshmen and sophomores to have a prominent role in the rotation.
Given all that, as well as his prominent place in every opponent's scouting report, Smart's numbers this season are eye-popping. He fills up the box score on a nightly basis, impacting every facet of the game. He's averaging 14.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks a game on 40/30/78 shooting. The last PG to post those types of all-around numbers in his freshman season? Jason Kidd at Cal.
The only real question for Smart is how high his ceiling is. Unlike Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams, there doesn't appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with his jumper. For Smart, it's more a matter of shot selection and learning the difference between an open shot and a good shot. He still settles for contested jumpers far too often and he's not a very consistent mid-range shooter. Projecting him down the road, if he can develop a runner and tighten up his ball-handling, he will be practically unstoppable.
In many ways, Smart's growth curve in the NBA could resemble Jrue Holiday, another super-sized PG thrust into a difficult situation in his only collegiate season. Holiday, at 6'4 and 205, has steadily improved and added things to his game in four years in Philadelphia, finally emerging as an All-Star this season. Guards with that type of size and speed are invaluable in the modern NBA because they give a team so many line-up options. Smart, like Holiday, has the size to cross-switch and slide over to the SG position, allowing him to be paired with an undersized combo guard like Lou Williams. The Mavericks would not have won the 2011 NBA Finals if Kidd didn't have the size to share a backcourt with Jet Terry.
Smart's not often mentioned in No. 1 overall pick discussions, but that could change if he can carry Oklahoma State to a deep NCAA Tournament run. Smart has proven he can take over of a game, most notably ending Bill Self's win streak at Phog Allen with a 25-point, 9-rebound, 3-assist and 5-steal game. In the rematch, neither Smart nor Ben McLemore, the other elite freshman guard in the Big 12, could get much going on offense. The difference was Smart still had 14 free throw attempts, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals. There aren't many guards who can dominate a game when their shots aren't falling, the ones who can tend to be special basketball players.
Here's a look at Oklahoma State's other NBA prospects.
A 6'7, 230-pound sophomore forward, Nash is a powerfully built wing player with an elite first step. When he's dialed in and attacking the rim, he can be hard to stop at the college level. The problem is that he settles for inefficient long-range shots far too often and when he isn't scoring, he can become disengaged with the game. The question is, in the NBA, will he able to finish in the lane against bigger opponents or will he actually need to knock down 20-foot jumpers? His outside shot doesn't look bad when he's under control, but it's so inconsistent one Twitter genius dubbed him "LeToney Bogans". With Smart going to the NBA, there's no reason LeBryan can't dominate the basketball and put together an All-American type season as a junior. (Averaging 14 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists on 45/21/74 shooting)
A hyper-athletic 6'3 and 180-pound junior guard with long arms that allow him to play bigger than his size, Brown is starting to put it all together this season. He's got an excellent outside shot and he's almost impossible to stay in front of, so if he can learn to stay under control and master the pull-up jumper, he'll be able to get his own shot at any level of basketball. Brown has a very well-rounded game: he's a combo guard who can play the point in a pinch and defend both backcourt positions. Ideally, on the next level, he would be slotted into a role similar to the one Mario Chalmers has with the Heat. (Averaging 16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block on 45/39/73 shooting)
A heavily tattooed and hulking 6'11, 260-pound senior center, Jurick may have been born a generation too late. He's got surprisingly quick feet for a player with his size, making him a good candidate to wrestle with a dominant low-post scorer and give six hard fouls. The problem is there aren't many guys like that in the NBA, much less in the Big 12. As a result, Jurick has a hard time staying on the floor for Oklahoma State: he doesn't have the offensive game to punish smaller defenders and he picks up fouls really quickly. A team will probably bring him into camp based solely on his size, but he may end up bouncing around the D-League. (Averaging 3 points, 6 rebounds and 1 block on 64/0/42 shooting)
An athletic 6'8, 220-pound sophomore big man, Cobbins is a fast-twitch athlete with long arms and great timing who does an excellent job of protecting the rim. The problem is that he doesn't have the size to play primarily in the paint at the next level, so he would need to develop more of a perimeter game. Nevertheless, with his quickness and length, if he can consistently knock down a 15-20 jumper, he could carve out a career as a Tyrus Thomas/Hakim Warrick type. (Averaging 7 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 55/0/75 shooting)
A smooth 6'8, 210-pound freshman combo forward, Murphy's combination of size, skill and athleticism is worth keeping an eye on. But while he's still figuring out his game at the college level, like Cobbins, he may end up as a man without a position in the NBA. The question is will he big enough to play as a power forward or skilled enough to play as a small forward. For now, he still has plenty of time to figure out an answer. (Averaging 4 points, 4 rebounds and 1 block on 47/0/55 shooting)
An athletic 6'5 and 205-pound sophomore shooting guard, Williams just returned from a preseason wrist injury that was expected to force him to take a medical red-shirt. He's an excellent perimeter defender who can play above the rim, but an NBA career will depend on him becoming a lockdown perimeter shooter. He was inconsistent as a freshman and his stroke hasn't totally returned this season, so he has a lot of work to do this summer to establish himself as a potential "3-and-D" player down the road.
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