Foul Shots: The ballad of Marcus Smart

It’s tough to find a high-profile college basketball player that wants to stay in school more than the single season mandated by former NBA commissioner David Stern. Nowadays, the so-called “diaper dandies” tend to leave after one glorious freshman year, choosing the fame and riches of the NBA over books, dorm rooms and subpar campus food.

Blame cannot be directed toward the players for eschewing college. I’ve made my stance clear on the one-and-done phenomenon before. I think the NBA’s rule is absolutely insane, but I’m not going to rehash that.

Marcus Smart is the ultimate rarity in today’s version of college basketball: the top-5 draft prospect that stays for another year. We’ve seen players like him before, but very rarely. Jared Sullinger, formerly of Ohio State University and now of the Boston Celtics, is the only example I can think of off the top of my head.

In 2012-13, Smart had an excellent freshman year, averaging 15.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, leading the Oklahoma State University to a 24-9 finish. He won the Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the nation’s top freshman. He didn’t win the John Wooden Award (given to the nation’s best player), but that wasn’t exactly a tragedy; that award was Trey Burke’s to win the entire season. But Smart proved himself to be a fantastic freshman, reminding many of Dwyane Wade with his explosiveness and defensive ability.

Smart was projected to be a top-5 pick in the rather weak 2013 NBA draft. I mean, Anthony Bennett went first overall! It might’ve been the worst draft ever. He could’ve ended up on an NBA team immediately, learning on the job and maturing while making millions of dollars. I’d say that 99.9 percent of players, if they had Smart’s choice, would choose to go to the NBA.

So why didn’t he go? Smart said that he thought he had more to accomplish in college, with his teammates. That’s a noble purpose, but one that carries a great deal of uncertainty with it. A player that returns after a fantastic freshman year faces a host of issues: ridiculous expectations, change in teammate quality, changes in scheduling and maybe some old-fashioned bad luck.

Returning for a second year also allows pro scouts to have another full season to pick apart a prospect. Sullinger is a prime case of this and after his first season, like Smart, he was a projected high first-round pick. But after a second season, in which NBA executives questioned his athleticism, the well-being of his back and drive to succeed, he fell to the 21st overall pick in the draft after his sophomore year.

It’s for this reason that I firmly believe that Marcus Smart made a horrendous decision to return to college. He seems to have hit a wall in his development. His scoring is up to 17.5 points per game, but his rebounding has decreased, as has his field goal percentage and assists have not jumped much. He’s still playing his usual ferocious defense, but his team has struggled and sits at just 16-10.

But the biggest issue that scouts see in Smart is his considerable temper and occasional inability to control his emotions. This issue came to the forefront Feb. 8 when Smart shoved a Texas Tech University fan after falling out of bounds contesting a dunk. Smart was frustrated, and his team ended up losing the game, but that’s no excuse for performing your best Ron Artest impression and getting into it with a fan. Smart originally said that the fan in question used a racial slur against him, but this was determined not to be true by Texas Tech management. That being said, the fan did reportedly call Smart a “piece of crap.”

A piece of crap? I’ve had insults far worse than that thrown at me during high school baseball games for crying out loud. You can’t just go into the stands and start throwing your hands around because someone calls you a piece of crap. At the NBA level, fans as a whole might not be as rabid as fans in college, but some fans certainly are. If Marcus Smart can’t handle being called a piece of crap, then he’s in for a rude awakening when he eventually gets to the NBA. He was suspended for three games, but that’s a slap on the wrist.

If Smart had entered the 2013 draft, it’s entirely possible that he could’ve had a similar experience with an NBA fan. And if he had, he would’ve been fined a significant amount. After the Artest fiasco in 2004, the NBA has cracked down on negative player-fan interactions. But it’s more likely that he would’ve learned how to deal with loudmouth fans from veteran teammates and coaches. Fans of opposing teams are always looking to get under great players’ skins, and Marcus Smart is a great player. He just has to learn how to harness his emotions.

I sincerely hope that I’m wrong, and that an extra year in college will turn Marcus Smart in to the two-way basketball force that everyone believes he can be if he maximizes his potential. But I can’t shake this nagging feeling in my mind that he shouldn’t have come back. You’ve got to take the money when you can.

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