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December 11, 2012

Marcus Smart and the accuracy cliff

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:09 am

Yesterday Mike DeCourcy named Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart as one of the young college basketball season’s “upside surprises.” Here are Mike’s comments on Smart, in full:

After watching Smart dominate yet another major opponent (South Florida) in yet another Cowboys victory, it felt like time to thumb through the Sporting News college basketball preview issue to double-check whether he’d been included on one of our three All-America teams. Alas, we missed on that, but he was one of the five players on our all-freshman team.

That still puts us far ahead of the person who, with a number of games passed, ranked Smart as the No. 14 freshman in the nation.

No. 14! Among freshmen!

People, Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point.

We knew he was going to be great. We did not expect that. Smart ranks only third on the OK State team in scoring (13.4), but leads in rebounding (7.4) and assists (5.0). He’s had a completely transformative effect on a team that last season finished 15-18. It’s far too early to say who’ll be your Sporting News player of the year — UNLV’s Anthony Bennett is pushing for that, as well as freshman of the year — but Smart is in the conversation.

I’m pretty sure Mike was referring to me, for I did indeed name Smart the No. 14 freshman in the nation last week. Actually, I thought I was pretty effusive in my remarks:

After coaching the FIBA U-18 team for the United States last summer, Billy Donovan told anyone who would listen that Marcus Smart was a special player, and Smart has certainly lived up to Donovan’s hype. The freshman’s already asserted himself as the third Cowboy — along with Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown — who’s on the floor more or less all game, every game. And continuing with our theme of big point guards, Smart is the biggest of the lot at 6-4 and 225 pounds. That size gives him the unique distinction of having not only a great assist rate but also a pretty decent (16.5) defensive rebound percentage. (Smart may also be the only point guard to rank among the nation’s top 400 players in block percentage.) His best contributions on offense by far have come from the aforementioned assists and at the free throw line, for he’s yet to show perimeter range and is shooting just 46 percent inside the arc.

If that sounds like I like Marcus Smart, I do. I’ve watched his games, I’ve marveled at his motor, I’ve shouted my praise from the rooftops in real time, and I was careful to get in on the ground floor of Oklahoma State fever.

But the funny thing about Smart is that his shots just have not gone in. That, in a narrow journalistic sense, is the really interesting story presented by Smart so far. I love him, you love him, Mike loves him, we all love him, and I’m convinced we’re right to feel as we do. But his shots just have not gone in.

Ordinarily when a player’s shots don’t go in, we can cite any one of a number of exculpatory circumstances on his behalf. He has to carry the offense, say, and so he’s attempting an insane number of shots. Or maybe he’s a point guard who has to not only run the offense but also do a lot of scoring.

Alas, those alibis don’t work so well with Smart.

Stats from KenPom, through Sunday, December 9.

Feast your eyes on 14 freshmen: Smart, plus the 13 players I ranked ahead of him, based on performance over a really short period of time. Compared to his peer freshmen, Smart is measurably horrible from the field, and his struggles can’t be written off on account of workload. Other freshmen, including freshmen at the same position, have done much better with the same or even larger workloads.

That graph can be made to look even worse for Smart by including the 11 freshmen I ranked under him. I rated Smart quite highly anyway because I like him in real time when I watch him (see above), his defense is incredible (steals plus defensive boards), he draws nearly six fouls per 40 minutes, and he shoots 79 percent at the line.

In other words, Mike and I like a lot of the same things about Smart. The fact that Mike drew a vastly different conclusion (“Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point”) than I did (No. 14 freshman and all that) will be represented by dreary people as an eyes vs. numbers thing.

Oh, please. Mike watched Smart’s games, and so did I. Mike used three stats in his blurb on Smart, and so did I.

What I like most about the accurate performance measures that Mike did not use in this instance is that they free up a person in his position to make supra-performance arguments. Instead of rehashing flawed numbers that merely reflect a player getting a lot of minutes and shots, Mike could have said this:

So Marcus Smart is shooting 21 percent on his threes. So what? Thanks for the brilliant insight, John Gasaway. What you have to understand is that Travis Ford needed Smart to at least try those threes. This is not a perimeter-oriented team, and what you see as a flaw in Smart’s performance is actually statistical testimony in support of a ferocious competitor, one who was given an order and saluted smartly.

I could be won over by an argument like that, and I really do think No. 14 represents “the floor” with respect to where I’ll be ranking Smart as the season progresses. I look forward to proclaiming Marcus Smart as a true upside surprise. Accurately.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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