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Examining the Growth of Marcus Smart

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics have a roster full of players who can be made available in trades. Yes, youngsters like Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are cool and all, but either of them would be out the door if Danny Ainge could package one of them for a star player.

However, there may be one member of the Celtics’ roster who’s close to untouchable: Marcus Smart.

Boston drafted Smart with its first-round draft selection (No. 6) in 2014, with the fiery Oklahoma State product drawing comparisons to Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade out of college.

While the 21-year-old probably won’t ever reach the level of either of those aforementioned stars offensively, his defensive prowess is unquestioned, and his improving offensive ability is certainly encouraging.

Now, let’s not beat around the bush here: Smart’s shooting numbers are not good this season.

He’s shooting 34.7 percent overall, 25 percent from three-point range and has a true shooting percentage of 46.4 percent. Those are all ugly statistics.

However, it’s the little things that Smart is doing offensively that make you think, “You know what, this kid is getting better.”

Let’s start with his free throw rate.

Smart only took 1.9 free throws per game last season, 2.5 per 36 minutes.

This year, Smart is averaging 4.3 free throw attempts, five per 36 minutes.

Sure, it’s a small sample size, but there’s very little doubt that Smart has gotten more aggressive this season, showing more of a willingness to put the ball on the floor and take it to the rim. The spike in foul shots reflect that.

In 2014-15, the 6’4″ guard was hesitant to take matters into his own hands. That has obviously changed in his sophomore campaign.

The increase in assertiveness is also revealed in Smart’s field goal attempts.

Smart is taking over three more shots a contest than last season, and the percentage of the attempts he has taken from long range has dipped.

During his rookie year, 57 percent of the shots Smart took came from beyond the arc. This season, that number has dropped to 50 percent, again demonstrating his increasing penchant to take the ball to the rack.

As far as his percentages, you just have to hope Smart’s shots start falling at some point. He’s never been a particularly good shooter, but his mechanics are solid and he’s still very raw. There’s absolutely room for improvement in that area.

For example, during the Celtics’ Saturday win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Smart erupted for 26 points off a 9-of-14 clip, going 3-of-5 from downtown and making eight trips to the charity stripe.

Little by little, he’s progressing, and even when he isn’t getting the job done offensively, he’s so spectacular on the defensive end that it almost negates his poor shooting.

Take Boston’s Sunday night victory over the Houston Rockets. Smart shot just 1-of-11, but thanks to his trademark masterful perimeter defense, he ended up being a plus-30.

Smart takes pride in his defensive ability, too.

“We can feel (teams giving in), and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said after the win in Houston, per Jay King of Mass Live. “Once we get on a roll like that in the defensive end, we lock down. We want teams to feel defeated.”

The second-year guard has a blend of size, strength and athleticism that makes him one of the premier defenders in the league, challenging even Tony Allen in that regard (let’s forget about Kawhi Leonard, who’s in a class of his own).

Not only that, but Smart embraces his role on that side of the ball, playing with a pitbull-like tenacity that’ll soon begin to strike fear into the hearts of opposing guards.

He’s even starting to get under the skin of some of the best players in the league, as Westbrook exhibited after his Thunder fell to Smart’s Celtics:

Smart played it cool in his response:

Smart held Westbrook to 5-of-20 shooting in that contest.

So, even if Smart never develops into anything more than a mediocre offensive player, he’s so terrific defensively that he’ll have significant value regardless.

Preventing baskets is every bit as important as scoring them, and Smart has played a pivotal role in helping Boston build the league’s third-best defense.

Of course, you can’t just look at statistics to determine growth. At some point, you have to turn on the television and watch these guys perform, and when you watch Smart this season, it looks like you’re watching a different player from a year ago.

He looks far more comfortable out on the floor, perhaps shaking off rookie jitters. While the statistical results may not exactly display it, Smart’s confidence appears to be sky-high at the moment.

Maybe those shots will start falling soon, in which case, look out: a star may be rising.

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