New Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka dubbed Marcus Smart a “foundational piece” and suggested he can be the “heart and soul” of the team.
Udoka showered Smart with praise during the coach’s first radio appearance on 98.5 the SportsHub’s “Zo & Bertrand” program on Tuesday morning, this after being asked if he considered the guard a pillar alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
“What Marcus brings is invaluable, it’s the heart and soul of the team at times,” said Udoka. "I had him with the Select Team going against the US national team and he was the only guy that really wasn’t scared out there. We got a bunch of future NBA All-Stars and All-NBA guys and they were a little timid at times. But Marcus is a very vocal leader.
"He has that edge and toughness about him. The things he brings to your team are the things you'd love every player to bring. You hate playing against him but you want him on your side. He’s another foundational piece. He’s been here through thick and thin, seen the winning and seen some down times. What he does for Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum] is invaluable, in my eyes.”
Udoka went on to suggest that Smart’s presence, along with potential offseason roster upgrades, could revitalize a Boston defense that ranked 13th in the defensive rating last season while allowing 111.8 points per 100 possessions.
Smart projects as the new starting point guard after the Celtics traded Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City earlier this month. He is entering the final year of a four-year, $52 million extension he signed in 2018.
The effusive praise from his new coach, who comes with a defensive reputation, makes you wonder about the possibility that Boston might splurge to keep Smart in green beyond this season.
Smart is extension eligible this summer and can command a deal starting at up to 120 percent of his final-year salary, with a maximum of 8 percent annual raises. Smart is set to earn $14.3 million this season, which means the Celtics could offer him a four-year, $77.2 million extension that would effectively put him on a five-year, $91.5 million deal, or an average annual value of $18.3 million.
Even with seven years of NBA experience, Smart is still only 27 years old. By his own admission, he didn’t play to his standards this past season, including a rare defensive regression that caused him not to spot on the All-Defense teams after consecutive first-team nods in 2019 and 2020.
Earlier this month we pondered if Smart was Boston’s point guard of the future. His playmaking skills are criminally underrated as the focus tends to be on his defense and sometimes-questionable shot selection. The question is whether Smart in the starting point guard role can consistently impact the Tatum/Brown core in a positive way.
Are the Celtics willing to spend now to extend Smart and lock up three core players? That decision would complicate Boston’s path to cap space if they desired to add a another star in the summer of 2023. That’s a prickly path even without a Smart extension, however, and the addition of a top talent is more likely to come via the trade route.
A Smart extension could allow Boston to be a bit more aggressive in signing Evan Fournier -- easing the desire to limit the years -- and, with a path to cap space gone, maybe getting a rookie extension done with Robert Williams becomes a more attractive option that could lock up another potential foundational piece pending his health and development.
On the other side, would Smart want to play out this season with hopes of a bigger overall payday -- with the Celtics or otherwise -- next summer? In the absence of an extension, it elevates the possibility that Smart could be moved before the trade deadline if the team fizzled with him in the starting point guard role.
It’s just another piece of the puzzle as new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens tries to put together a title contender, all while already acknowledging a need to infuse even more talent on this roster to truly be in the mix with the league’s elite.