Smart emerges from trying sophomore season ready for the NBA

If Marcus Smart were able to travel back in time and alter the course of his final collegiate season, the Oklahoma State point guard would no doubt seize the opportunity to prevent himself from kicking a chair in disgust after a poor game against West Virginia and shoving a fan at Texas Tech, much-publicized incidents that brought his character into question, at least for those who don’t know him.

Smart is a man of many skills, but the ability to wander through the space-time continuum is not among them. That being the case, Smart did the only thing he could, taking ownership of his mistakes, even as critics railed against him. Some said the pressure of living up to his status as a lottery pick had caused a meltdown. Others suggested he had set fire to stacks of NBA money by returning to school after his freshman season and tarnishing his draft stock as a sophomore.

Throughout his trying season, Smart remained steadfast. Despite all he went through, he doesn’t regret staying in school. The lessons he learned were invaluable, even though there were repercussions, the worst being a three-game suspension after the confrontation with the fan, who taunted Smart after he tumbled out of bounds while trying to block a shot. Smart can handle a lot, but when his playing privileges were taken away, it hurt.

“I don’t have any regrets at all about coming back,” Smart said. “None at all. [The season] definitely tested my character a lot. But it made me stronger as a person and as a player. It gave me more motivation to play.

“That probably won’t be the last time something like that happens. We don’t have a right to stop fans from saying what they want to say, but now I’ve got experience dealing with it. That’s where the maturity comes in.”

Those who know Smart best laugh at the suggestion he’s ruined his draft stock, or that NBA teams now question his character.

“If there’s any negativity out there, and that causes a team with a lottery pick to pass on him, there are going to be a lot of teams laughing,” Oklahoma State associate head coach Butch Pierre said. “Because if one team passes on him, another one is going to take him.

“Any team that thinks they’re going to be in that lottery, they’ve been to our place. They’ve watched practice and games. They’ve put in the time talking to us, players, managers, trainers—everybody here. And they know what kind of kid he is.”

Those rare displays of frustration notwithstanding, Smart is a leader whose magnetic personality is a fit for the position he learned to play at Oklahoma State.

“He’s a natural born leader,” Oklahoma State assistant coach Chris Ferguson said. “He’s a leader on the court; he’s a leader off the court. He’s like a pied piper. Everybody kind of gravitates toward him.”

Therein was the root of Smart’s frustration.

“When he came back last year, he probably put too much pressure on himself, because he’s a pleaser,” Ferguson said. “He likes to please, and he’s a perfectionist. He wanted to do big and glorious things, and we started out 16-3 and were ranked fifth in the country.

“But then we lost a couple in a row, and Marcus took that personally. The situations this year weren’t aimed at anybody but himself, because he wanted to be perfect.”

Smart wasn’t perfect, and may never be, but the NBA team that drafts him can be assured of one thing—he’ll never stop seeking perfection. Smart never played the point until his freshman year at Oklahoma State, and the weaknesses in his game were underscored. He made too many turnovers relative to his assists. He wasn’t a consistent enough perimeter shooter. He wasn’t quite sure when to take a game over or facilitate offense for others. But the potential, in that battering ram (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) of a package, intrigued scouts.

Smart was wise enough to know what he didn’t know, and that’s why, despite the fact he was a certain lottery pick, he stunned draft analysts by staying in school.

Smart got a lot out of the summer of 2013. He helped the USA Basketball team win the gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championships. He jousted with NBA players at USA Basketball’s national team mini-camp. High-level competition was good for his game.

“He’s a better basketball player now than he was a year ago,” said VCU coach Shaka Smart, an assistant on the USA U19 team and also the U18 team, led by Marcus Smart, that won FIBA gold in the summer of 2012. “That kind of gets lost on a lot of people because they focus on some of the some of the things he went through this past year. Knowing Marcus, he’s going to grow from those experiences and there are only going to make him better long term.”

At his best, Smart is a triple-double waiting to happen. Last season he led Oklahoma State in scoring, but he also led the Cowboys in assists and steals and was second in rebounding. “Marcus can effect a game, dominate a game, and not even score a point,” Ferguson said.

That has always been the case, even before Smart learned how to play the point.

“When I was younger I really didn’t have a primary position,” Smart said. “To this day I still don’t really have a primary position. I just do a little bit of everything. That was always the advantage I had—nobody knew how to stop me from doing those things. I just feel like you need to be able to do more than one thing on the basketball court. At some point somebody’s going to figure out [your strength] and stop it. Then what do you do? If I can do multiple things, there’s no way anybody can stop me.”

Chances are good Smart won’t average six rebounds or three steals a game in the NBA like he did in college. He may never be able to consistently guard quicker point guards. But those quicker point guards will be hard-pressed to stop him as he barrels his way into the paint. And his will to win will be infectious.

Smart went through hell and back to learn the art of playing the point, but he’ll never regret returning for a second season at Oklahoma State.

“I became more of a point guard,” Smart said. “Trying to get my teammates more involved in the game. Basketball is five on five for a reason, and sometimes I’ve been guilty of losing track of that. By coming back, I realized that you’re not always going to play to the best of your ability every night, and that your teammates are there to help you. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.”Oklahoma State Cowboys vs University of Oklahoma Men's Basketball Game, Saturday, January 12, 2012, Lloyd Noble Arena, Norman, OK