Who saw this coming? Certainly not me. Traditionally, the narrative on Marcus Smart emphasized the tension between perimeter scoring and defense. Could his 3-point shooting ever catch up to his status as a bulldog defender?
For a season and a half now, Smart has been a league average shooter from deep, averaging 35.9 percent on triples. Surprisingly, it is his game from 10-16 feet that has made the most progression.
Take a minute to study how the distance on his field goal attempts has changed from season to season. Then, notice how his field goal percentage from 10-16 feet has jumped up 9 percentage points from last year!
So, what exactly is going on? Why is Smart taking more shots from this 10-16 foot range than ever before and why are they dropping at a career high rate? A look at the film and numbers provides three specific answers for this question.
1. Taking advantage of his physical gifts
When the Cs need a bucket, it no longer surprises anyone to see Brad Stevens call a post up play for Marcus. His core strength is well-noted and Smart possesses both the brass and brawn necessary to make something positive happen.
Check out this post up during a close game against the Thunder. Smart begins the backdown from a step within the 3-point line. With a notable height advantage of Chris Paul, Smart takes his time to get to his spot, create separation and calmly hit what could have been an and-1 fadeaway.
Once more, Smart uses his weight and height to his benefit. This time against the smaller Malik Monk, he opts to turn out of the post up, hit Monk with a quick jab step and then pull up over him. Check out how much higher his release point is compared to Monk’s ill-fated contest.
Smart’s comfort to begin post ups outside of the paint and settle for turnaround jumpers seems like it would drive Celtics fans crazy. Yet, is has become one of Marcus’s more dependable shots lately.
2. Manipulating pick and rolls
Boston has three players who rank within the top 85th percentile for pick and roll ballhandlers. You can guess one of them (Kemba Walker.) Another is Jayson Tatum, which may not be so surprising anymore. The last one is Marcus Smart.
Specifically, Smart is in the 89th percentile this season. About a third of his points come out of the pick and roll and it reflects in his impressive 54.6 effective field goal percentage. This is a massive bump up from Smart’s previous numbers, as he never finished higher than the 49th percentile in any of his previous seasons.
Smart has become adept at snaking pick and rolls and seizing on good scoring opportunities. In what could be seen as a zig when the league seems to be zagging, he actually embraces open midrange looks. He demonstrated this perfectly by sinking a smooth jumper against the Magic.
The snaking motion is more evident in this clip versus Denver. What’s more, this play showcases Smart’s improved touch on floaters. Driving to your left before tossing up a right-handed floater is no easy task.
Marcus does an excellent job of sealing off a defender when he feels them on his back. Here, he recognizes he must get the ball back to his dominant hand for the shot. His pace slows and he positions his body perfectly do disallow a contest from Lou Williams.
Lastly, watch Smart patiently use two Daniel Theis screens before getting the look he wants. Perhaps underrated due to a lack of flashiness, his dribbling skills help him get an open jumper, making them effective as ever.
3. Pump faking his way into closer shots
In addition to his pick and roll game, opposing defenses suddenly have to respect Smart’s 3-point shot. Sensing this, we have seen more pump fakes than ever from the 6th year guard.
The decisions off of these fakes have been solid all year. In the clip below you will see Cody Zeller frozen in time. Smart simply takes the look Zeller gives him and it results in an easy, midrange two.
Perhaps these fakes do not seem overly impressive. This one against lockdown defender Giannis Antetokounmpo might change your mind. It also will show how much defenders respect his 3-point shot now.
Smart is close to 30 feet from the hoop when he fakes out Giannis. He immediately darts to the hoop and lets off a clean floater before shot blocker Brook Lopez can alter the shot. This is textbook stuff from the veteran.
There has been a marked change in Smart’s game when compared to last season. The 2018-2019 campaign saw him take 17 percent of his shots at the rim. That number is down 10 percentage points this year and many of those attempts have come from the 10-16 range instead.
So, what does this all signal? Smart knows his role is not to be a rim attacker. The Celtics trio of star wings and Kemba Walker are more talented at finishing among the trees. But, he must find a way to provide more offensive utility than just spacing the floor.
This is where we should be most appreciate of Smart’s work ethic. His determination to develop his shooting touch and handles have paid off and done so with perfect timing. The team needs someone who can create from the post, operate the pick and roll when Walker sits, and attack off closeouts. Smart can do all three and Boston is thriving because of it.