Tomase: Great shooters can be made, but will Marcus Smart ever be one of them?

John Tomase
November 28, 2017 - 12:10 pm
Celtics guard Marcus Smart isn't much of a shooter.

Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports


Certain basketball skills you're simply born with. You can't coach height or leaping ability. You can't drill court vision or instincts.

But the one thing you can learn, as Celtics boss Danny Ainge is fond of saying, is how to shoot. The NBA is full of guys who entered the league with wayward jumpers and departed as marksmen. Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd are two. Michael Jordan made barely 15 percent of his 3-pointers over his first four seasons, and then knocked down a career-best 42.7 percent of them less than a decade later.

Those guys are all-time greats, but the logic applies to lesser lights, too. Raptors All-Star Kyle Lowry shot .257 on 3's at age 21 and .412 last year at age 30. Joe Johnson didn't crack 30 percent as a rookie with the Celtics in 2001, but three years later he checked in at .478. Detroit's Reggie Jackson shot .294 from beyond the arc over his first three years and is at .359 in the three years since. Minnesota's Jimmy Butler has raised his percentage 200 points from his rookie year (.182) to today (.383). Cleveland's Kevin Love made 2-of-19 3-pointers in 2008 and five years later shot 190-for-505 (.376).

And that brings us to -- you guessed it -- Marcus Smart.

At this point, there's no longer any debate that the fourth-year guard is a winning player. From last year's playoff run to this year's 18-4 start, it's no coincidence that Smart plays crunch-time minutes when the Celtics are finding a way to prevail. Give him all the Tommy Points.

What's equally clear is they're not winning because of his shooting. Smart is taking a career-high 10.2 shots a game, but shooting a career-low .312 from the field. He's even worse on 3-pointers, checking in at .289, just below his lifetime mark of .291.

Smart's shooting isn't just bad. It isn't even doing him justice to call it historically bad. Smart is actually the NBA's worst full-time shooter in the last 50-plus years. His lifetime shooting percentage of .353 ranks dead last among players with at least 200 games since 1965, per basketball-reference. You read that correctly: dead last.

Those numbers were even worse until Monday's loss to the Pistons, when Smart made 6-of-9 3-pointers en route to a season-high 23 points. That performance continued a curious trend: when Smart shoots over 30 percent from the floor, the Celtics are 5-4. When he doesn't, they're 11-0.

"I'd rather have the win," Smart told reporters on Monday. "Obviously it felt good to be able to get it in rhythm. But like I said, I'd rather have the win."

The question is if there's any hope of him improving that aspect of his game even to league-average levels. A Smart who brings all of his hustle, toughness and intangibles to the floor while shooting 35 percent from long range might be an All-Star. The one who strings together the following shooting performances in seven straight games (all wins) is not: 3-for-11, 3-for-16, 3-for-10, 1-for-8, 0-for-7, 3-for-8, 3-for-15.

That's what makes nights like Monday so tantalizing. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy jokingly referred to him as Kyle Korver, and outside of a banked buzzer-beater, Smart's shots looked true from the moment they left his hand, up to and including a heat-check 28-footer that rattled in-and-out in the closing minute.

We've seen these games before, however, and even if they mark the start of a mini-hot streak, it never lasts. The most extreme example came last May against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, a series the Celtics were never going to win, anyway.

After losing Game 2 at home by 44 points, the C's stole Game 3, thanks to the game of Smart's life. He made 7-of-10 3-pointers en route to 27 points before Avery Bradley won it at the buzzer. With Isaiah Thomas sidelined, the only prayer the C's had of staying in the series hinged on Smart repeating that performance. He instead shot 1-for-9 in Game 4 and 2-of-7 in Game 5 as the Cavs cruised into the Finals.

History suggests Smart will thud back to earth this time, too. He has made at least three 3-pointers in consecutive games just twice in his career, any momentum typically undone by his busy shooting form, which starts low, ends high, and has lots of movement in between. If the best shooters are quiet -- think Ray Allen's sweet flick of the wrist -- Smart's more like a clanging construction crane.

And if that's what he is, so be it. Even without a consistent jumper, his value isn't limited to the defensive end. He's outstanding in the pick-and-roll, he makes good decisions, and he can be an effective scorer in the post.

He's just limited, and it doesn't feel like any amount of practice is going to change that.

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