The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
What can you say about Marcus Smart that hasn’t already been communicated in the form of a low-quality, psilocybin-fueled photoshop of Smart’s face onto Prince Harry’s body, standing next to a hulked-out Megan Markle/Semi Ojeleye mash-up, on top of a background of exploding frogs and peppermint hail?
I know, but I’ll try anyway.
This will be Smart’s last season on this list before he ages off and, four seasons into his career, it feels like his basketball persona has been fully illuminated. He is physical — almost to the point of absurdity. His post defense is one of the 12 Wonders of the Basketball World and everything he does — rebound, defend, fight through screens, attack the basket and, unfortunately, shoot jumpers — is accompanied by kinetic force.
Energy and effort are not Smart’s armor, that metaphor would assume that there is some soft underbelly to be protected. Fact: The interior of Marcus Smart’s body is made of obsidian, as his lava core is rapidly cooled by his ultra-cool exterior. He’s just all fire and sweat and spite and calcified resolve, bulldozing his way around the court.
But don’t get it twisted, Smart is not some mindless juggernaut crashing into things like a sensory-seeking pre-schooler. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
One could look at Smart’s stats — say stretching his career 29.3 3-point percentage over nearly 250 attempts last season — and question his basketball IQ. I get it. He turns the ball over. Sometimes his shots make you cringe…mostly the ones from beyond 10 feet. But whatever Smart is lacking in basketball intelligence, he more than makes up for in basketball wisdom. Like communing with The Old Gods wisdom, speaking with the trees and rocks and the stars. Pull out your calculator to show him his expected field goal percentage and he’s likely to snap it in half, start pulling out components and melting down the tungsten carbide (world’s most baller metal) to fashion a battle axe capable of rending Jimmy Butler from his pride.
Smart’s game may look primitive but that is to overlook the beauty in its simplicity. He understands his limitations, but he refuses to acquiesce to them, just like he refuses to bend a knee to any offensive player with his eye on the basket. He sometimes makes offensive decisions like he’s Kyrie Irving because that’s the engine that drives the Celtics offense, and who cares if he’s grinding the gears a bit? He’ll get it back at the other end — for the nerds, Smart was rated as a slight negative on offense by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and a net positive by a significant margin.
It feels right for this to be Smart’s last appearance on this list. For all his movement on the court, he has reached a point of stable equilibrium. If nature hasn’t been able to force a rapid evolution yet, it is tough to envision a phenomenon that could. Next year he will be 25 and still a visceral explosion of grating defensive effort and occasional overreaching at the other end.
Would he be better if he took fewer 3-pointers, or made a few more of them? Sure. Maybe a shorter leash on his passes in the halfcourt? And a little more touch around the basket? But to pick nits is to, like, miss the whole point, man. At 24 years old, Marcus Smart has ascended to a higher plane of consciousness — the one where you just freaking play basketball.