Is Marcus Smart's improvement overhyped?

Guest post by LarBrd33

There was a lot of excitement following Smart's first two Summer league games. As tradition with Summer league, fans overreacted. I saw some fans declare that Smart was living up to his superstar potential. His shooting, ball handling and distribution seemed significantly better. He was attacking the basket. Marcus was breaking out! But it was only two games. And in half of those games, Smart shot 30%. My concerns about Smart's offensive ability weren't suddenly cured with a couple summer league games.

First, a reminder that you should ALWAYS take Summer league with a grain of salt. Joe Forte once dominated Summer league. Jerryd Bayless averaged 30.3 points in 2008. Anthony Randolph averaged 26.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.3 steals and 3 blocks in 2009. Reggie Williams averaged 22.6 points in 2010. Josh Selby averaged 24.2 points, 3.2 assists, 2.4 steals in 2012. Jeffery Taylor averaged 20.3 points and 1.8 steals in 2013. Glen Rice Jr dominated summer league last year by averaging 25 point, 7.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.5 steals.

Smart has undeniably been one of the better performers in Summer league, but It's fair to note that the Summer games are traditionally dominated by second year players. It makes sense when you think about it. The guys with NBA experience play better. Go figure. Keep this in mind when you see a Karl Anthony-Towns vs D'Angelo Russell match-up dominated by Zach LaVine and Jordan Clarkson... second year players have an advantage. The competition level is nowhere near real NBA basketball. If you spend an entire year against real NBA players (even if that time is a struggle), you should expect to look better when returning to minor leagues. Second year players always have an advantage. Imagine struggling against Middle school kids. Then spending a whole year struggling against High School kids. If you go back to that Middle School court, you're probably going to look pretty good. It doesn't mean you're suddenly going to be the king of High School ball. Similar to that, huge Summer league performances from 2nd year players doesn't guarantee they will now be NBA world-beaters.

Smart isn't the only 2nd year guy this year showing strides. Aaron Gordon's stats last year: 7.8 points, 5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0 steals, 0.4 blocks on 35% shooting and 0% from three. Gordon this year: 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks on 50% sooting and 50% from three. Big difference. We didn't see much of Exum, but he looked dramatically improved as well. He averaged 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals with 30%/17%/64% shooting last year. In his lone game before injuring his ankle, he lead Utah past Boston by putting up 20 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds on 46%/20%/90% shooting. I happen to think both of those guys actually have big futures in the NBA, but we shouldn't overreact from their SL performances. Does it mean they have taken huge leaps over the last 3 months since the regular season ended?... or does it simply mean they are better than they were a year ago when they last played against this weak competition?

So let's take a look at Smart's stats.

2013-14 Summer League Stats: 14.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2 steals 29%/26%/83% - 5 Games
2014-15 Summer League Stats: 18.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals 33%/29%/84% - 4 Games

Ok... so there's marginal improvement there, but it's not like he was awful last season. He's still shooting below 35% which is a bit concerning. He's not going to be allowed the opportunity to jack up 17 shots a night in the real NBA if he continues to shoot that poorly. Some of the higher stats is a result of role and surrounding talent. Remember that last year Smart was sharing the court with Kelly Olynyk (in his second summer league) in which Oly averaged 17.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. That impacted some of the opportunities Smart got. As much as Hunter and Rozier are surprising folks, neither is playing as well as Olynyk last year. When Smart has played, he's been "the man" by default.

So what does this mean? Yes, Smart is playing well. Yes, his stats are slightly better. Yes, we can see specific things like his awareness, ball movement and distribution. But is this the result of his work over the last few months?... or does he just look better than last Summer league?

Let's take a look at how he performed in the regular season last year:

Pre All-star stats: 6.8 points, 3.5 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals on 37%/35%/67% - 24.4mpg
Post All-star stats: 9.1 points, 2.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 36%/32%/63% - 30.2mpg
Full Season stats: 7.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals 37%/34%/65% - 27mpg

So he had marginal improvement over the first and second half of the season. I've gotten flack for suggesting that I was disappointed in Smart's rookie season. To be clear, a lot of fans pre-draft thought Smart compared well with Tyreke Evans. Tyreke averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals as a rookie. Smart was thought to be one of the most NBA-ready players in the 2014 draft. The comparison didn't seem too outlandish. Instead, Smart's stats seemed more similar to rookie Iman Shumpert (another defensive role player): 9.5 points, 2.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals. That's not to say I don't believe Smart has the capacity to improve. I think he's by far our best prospect and it seems he has a mentality conducive to improving. I just found his rookie season somewhat disappointing. We did see slight improvement over the second half of the season as Smart was given a larger role. Could we simply be seeing that same marginal improvement carry over into Summer league this year?

It's a bit difficult to project what kind of season Smart will have, because there's no real way to account for role and usage. Will Smart be given the keys to run the offense this year (like he's doing in Summer league right now) or will Evan Turner continue to be our primary ball handler as a "point forward"? Nonetheless, I'll try using a barbaric method of projecting stats to guesstimate what Smart could do this season in the NBA:

Since his summer league stats last year (14.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2 steals) resulted in him averaging 7.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals in the big leagues, I'll just use those same multipliers to guesstimate his stats based on his Summer league performance this year 18.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals

2014 - SL: 14.8 points, 4.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 2 steals = NBA: 7.8 points, 3.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals
2015 - SL: 18.2 points, 5.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals = NBA: ???

I come up with 2014-15 projections of: 9.6 points, 3.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals...

... So basically VERY similar to his post-allstar stats of 9.1 points, 2.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals ...

Here's hoping he surpasses those projections. I sure as heck hope he does. But based on that pretty barbaric method, I can come to a conclusion that the "dramatically improved" Marcus Smart we are seeing is just the natural result of playing a year in the NBA. I don't necessarily believe he's going to show up at the start of the season as a fully formed all-star. He's still has a lot of work to do before we can consider him a competent offensive player and most of the mild improvement we're seeing with him statistically seems to be the same mild improvement we saw over the first and second half of the season. I, for one, am trying to keep my expectations low.

Guest post by LarBrd33   Read more of his posts here.