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NBA Free Agency 2018: Could Marcus Smart come home to Dallas?

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The Celtic guard is set to be a free agent. Will his hometown team come calling?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The fan favorite Celtic might be a free agent and both he and the Mavericks should give the situation serious consideration.

BASICS

Marcus Smart was born in Flower Mound, Texas, about 30 minutes Northwest of the American Airlines Center, where the Dallas Mavericks play. Smart was a standout high school basketball player(prior to HS he was also a terrific football player, as well), earning McDonalds All America honors and a 5-star label from every major recruiting publication.

Choosing Oklahoma State, Smart quickly emerged as the Cowboys’ team leader and was widely considered a top 5 draft pick after his freshman season, but he opted to return to school for his sophomore year. Smart ultimately was selected 6th by the Boston Celtics in the 2014 draft.

As the Celtics quickly rebounded from cellar-dweller to rising contender, Smart dealt with injury issues and shooting inconsistency but still managed to play a key role for the team. For a young player who isn’t a full-time starter, Smart has several memorable playoff performances under his belt already, such as the 20-point game off the bench against Atlanta in an overtime win back in 2016, or one of his hustle-and-grind battles against the Sixers last month.

STRENGTHS

Marcus’ strength is…well, strength. Listed at 6’4 220 pounds, Smart plays more like a 300 pound bowling ball on the court, and with his combination of strong, quick hands, outstanding anticipation, and an all-out style that’s made him a fan favorite, Smart is an absolute terror on defense, capably checking all five positions at times(though he’s obviously best matching up against wings). Smart has rated between 12th and 4th among his position in defensive real plus minus every year he’s been in the league, and the Celtics defended nearly 5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor this past season.

Smart was drafted to be a point guard and while three different All-Star Celtics (Rondo, IT2, and now Kyrie Irving) have blocked that position for him, at the off-guard Smart’s ball handling and passing vision go from average to plus. His assist rate and usage rate have climbed each of the last three seasons, and in addition to setting career highs there, his assist per 36 numbers were actually best on his team, ahead of the shoot-first Kyrie.

Smart’s on-court abilities are clear, but what perhaps really makes him a special player is what he brings in intangibles; his attitude, relentless competitiveness, intensity and fire. Every team and certainly any great one needs a player like Smart, and as cliché as that might sound, it’s true, because the way he goes about his business is contagious. Just ask Jaylen Brown, who has talked at length about how Smart has kept him in line when the young emerging player has drifted off Brad Stevens’ playbook. Even if you go back to Smart’s rookie year, when a hand injury ended his summer league play early, but didn’t stop him from barking out defensive cues from the bench like a coach for the rest of the week.

WEAKNESSES

Shooting the ball. After shooting under 30% from college three, I was still fairly bullish on how he’d progress there, because he has decent mechanics and he made his free throws. Suffice to say, he’s yet to become a marksmen from the NBA line yet, though he did creep up over 30% this past season for the first time since his rookie year. Similar to Dennis Smith Jr, Smart is respectable shooting from mid-range, and converts well enough at the rim, but the combination of bad attempts from behind the three point line, and sub-optimal touch on shots from 3-10 feet bury his efficiency.

Smart doesn’t have Dennis’ burst and explosiveness, however, and that’s what tends to keep him out on the perimeter. I haven’t done a ton of legwork on this, but there probably aren’t many players in league history who shoot as *much* as Smart does, on such low percentages. Smart hasn’t been discouraged from shooting because spacing the floor(and the truth is even bad shooters will still draw defenders away from the basket better than non-shooters) is so important to Boston’s offensive system, and there’ some hope that eventually Marcus can develop into at least an average, 33-35% shooter. But that may not happen.

Smart’s intensity, while a big plus in most cases, also occasionally can backfire, such as the time Marcus injured his hand punching things in the locker room after a tough loss. Then there was of course the notorious incident when he was in college when he pushed a Texas Tech fan, though you can debate just how much weight something someone did when they were 19 should carry.

FIT WITH THE MAVERICKS

So, I signed up to write about Marcus Smart before the draft, when Doncic looked like a pipe dream and acquiring versatile two-way wings was at the top of my priority list. With Doncic in the fold, there may be slightly less need for what Smart brings, but probably not significantly less, especially if Wes Matthews is traded in a deal for a center. Smart would instantly and substantially upgrade the team’s perimeter defense, and he brings in another rebounder, passer and play maker to the mix.

Given DSJ’s lack of length and Luka’s lack of elite athleticism, it will be paramount to surround those two key play makers with tough defenders and floor-spacers. Smart emphatically checks box number one there, but he does leave something to be desired in the latter category. Smart made just 0.91 PPP in spot up attempts, and just 31% of his catch and shoot threes. How much better can he get there? I like the player so much that I want to believe there’s still upside, but each passing year it gets harder to project, realistically.

One thing that’s clear is that Smart’s physicality, passion and work ethic would be more than welcome in Dallas. Smart could come back home, be closer than his family, and take on a larger role on an ascending team in the Mavs. How high Smart ranks on Dallas’ priority list -- and how interested Boston will or won’t be in letting him go – is something we’ll find out soon enough.