Celtics

Celtics

This Wednesday is Marcus Smart Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Smart throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Spurs-Celtics.

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BOSTON — The hustle plays, the clutch shots from the field, the long, laundry list of intangibles that Marcus Smart brings to the game have endeared him to Celtics Nation. 

He is a unique NBA talent who has clearly found his niche with the Boston Celtics. 

But what if the Celtics never drafted him?

That possibility existed after an underwhelming initial workout with the team. 

“He had turnovers and missed shots in that first workout,” Austin Ainge, the Celtics’ director of player personnel, told NBC Sports Boston. “And we knew he was better. And we really liked him, we really wanted to draft him. We just wanted to wrap our heads around, feel a little more comfortable about it. As much data as you have, it scares you a little bit.”

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They asked for a second workout and Smart obliged, unaware of the circumstances until years later. 

“I was like four years in the league before I found out why they wanted that second workout,” Smart, grinning, told NBC Sports Boston. “I thought my first workout went OK, but I guess it didn’t.”

So as this current incarnation of the Boston Celtics continues to defy expectations and play at a level few outside the organization envisioned this season, the play and presence of Marcus Smart stands out. 

 

He’s averaging career highs in scoring and assists, rotating between being a key reserve and fill-in starter while steadily climbing his way up the all-time leaders list among Celtics greats. 

Smart is on pace to become only the fifth player in franchise history to make 500 or more 3-pointers. He’s currently sixth with 496. 

His 1.5 steals per game also ranks sixth all-time among Celtics. He currently has 566 career steals and needs three more to tie Dave Cowens and Reggie Lewis for ninth all-time. 

There’s no disputing Smart has left his mark on this franchise, and he is well aware that may have never happened if the Celtics decided to put a ton of stock in that first, lackluster workout he had with the team. 

“It’s crazy to think of me not being a Celtic, but yeah, it could have happened if I didn’t maybe make a few more shots in that second workout than I did in the first,” Smart said. “That was probably the biggest difference between the two workouts.”

Austin Ainge added, “He played great (in the second workout), like he had so many other times we had seen him play.”

ON THE SMART TRAIL

Boston’s interest in Smart began years before he made himself eligible for the 2014 NBA draft. 

“We saw him play with the U.S. Junior National team, two years at Oklahoma State, so we had seen him play a lot,” Ainge said. “He was a highly rated high school kid. So he was not someone that was under the radar. So we’d seen him play a ton.”

So did other NBA teams picking in the lottery that year, many of whom had Smart rated high on their list of draft prospects. 

When told about Smart not having a great initial workout Boston, one team in the lottery that year that had Smart on their radar was not surprised. 

“Smart wasn’t a very good shooter when he came into the league, and there was no way you could get a real sense about whether his defense could be good enough to mask his shooting,” the league executive told NBC Sports Boston. “Fortunately for Boston and unfortunately for the rest of us, it was good enough. And now that he’s a much more capable, competent shooter, it’s obvious Danny Ainge and those guys got the right guy.”

“DANNY (AINGE) WAS ALWAYS IN MY CORNER”

Throughout the workout and all the other trials and tribulations Smart has been involved with as a Celtic, the one constant through it all has been the support of Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations. 

Smart said that support has been vital to his success and growth, both as a player and a man here in Boston. 

 

“It’s different when you got a guy like Danny who knows the game of basketball, who’s played it; been there, done it,” Smart said. “So it’s a little more understanding to know that every night, it’s not going to be your night, every day is not gonna be your day. The will to win, he knows it and he sees it. That relationship between me and Danny is great.

"When there were those days when folks question whether me being here was a good idea, Danny was always in my corner.”

That faith Ainge has shown in Smart is paying huge dividends these days. 

In his fifth NBA season, Smart is averaging 11.4 points (a career high) and 4.7 assists per game. 

PLAY OFF SMART AT YOUR OWN RISK

Already an elite defender, Smart’s play offensively has not only impacted the Celtics, but also how teams prepare to play the Celtics now. 

Brooklyn’s Joe Harris was one of Smart’s teammates this past summer with Team USA, and he believes many of the skills that have made Smart an elite defender have also helped him become a scoring threat at the other end of the floor. 

“He’s so good at picking his spots, when to be aggressive,” Harris told NBC Sports Boston. “And the thing is, he’s capable. He’s a good shooter at the line. He’s such a heady player, super smart. And he continues to make the right reads. Sort of the way he does the little stuff defensively, he does the little stuff offensively as well. He’s making the extra pass, making the cuts when he needs to make the cuts. He makes the game easy for everybody else.”

And because of that, no longer is Smart seen as an offensive liability that teams can take advantage of by not defending him — something the Atlanta Hawks found out recently. 

With Boston ahead by one with less than a minute to play, Atlanta’s Trae Young went underneath a Daniel Theis screen and Smart made them pay with a clutch 3-pointer.

The play happened in front of the Hawks bench, which led to a few words from Smart towards them after the shot went down. 

“I just made a read and they left me open and I took the shot,” said Smart who finished with 15 points, nine assists and six rebounds. “To the (Hawks) bench, I just told them to just keep leaving me open.”

Harris said that’s something that the Nets know not to do when it comes to Smart these days.

“When we go through personnel, there are certain guys, we have different terminology for how we want to guard them,” Harris said. “And this year, Marcus is definitely not in the category where we’re trying to play off him. He can knock down shots if you’re playing off of him, go under on him. He can make you pay. He’s one of those guys, you definitely don’t want him to get into a rhythm early. Because he sort of carries that energy on the defensive end, but he can carry it on the offensive end as well.”

 

The areas in which Smart’s game has progressed are the direct result of him putting in the time to get better, something the Celtics know is not a given in this league. 

“There’s no guarantee that players will get better with age; most do,” said Austin Ainge. “But it requires work and focus and Marcus has put in time and he’s getting better.”

And that work ethic has not only won over foes, but also endeared him to his teammates. 

“We should all feel blessed to have a teammate like him, both ends (of the floor),” said Boston’s Enes Kanter. “Not just on the court but off the court. He brings so much energy, so much toughness. brings so much on the table.

"We should all feel blessed to have a leader, to have a teammate, have a friend like Marcus.” 

Don't miss Marcus Smart Day and NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Spurs, which tips off Wednesday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.