Marcus Smart always willingly hits the floor. Whether he's chasing a loose ball in the first quarter of a meaningless regular-season game or he's drawing a charge against the opponent’s point guard in the fourth quarter of a Game 7.
Smart thrives on defense. With his six-foot-four frame, he can shrink a 94-foot basketball court into a studio condo when he gets you in his crosshair. He lives to squeeze through screens and into his opponents’ heads.
He’s also the best teammate. It doesn’t matter what situation; whether you’re Jayson Tatum getting roughed up on defense or Kyrie Irving on the verge of leaving the team. Marcus Smart will have your back, even if it costs him a few thousand dollars in fines.
None of the things mentioned above are quantifiable. Even the most advanced stats have had trouble putting a value on a player’s heart and hustle. Smart’s Basketball Reference page doesn’t jump out at you with any solid numbers. In the 2019-20 season, his best season, Smart averaged 12.9 points, 4.9 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 37.5 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from the 3-point area. Not exactly shining numbers.
But in this offseason, the Celtics placed a value on Smart when they signed him to a second extension for four years and around $77 million. On paper, Smart could be a 13-year Celtics veteran by the end of his contract. That’s a lot of longevity for someone who can’t even shoot above 40 percent from the field.
But that’s how important Smart is to the Celtics. Boston has been a playoff team every season since picking Smart sixth in the 2014 NBA Draft. At times when the Celtics were in limbo during the confusing Kyrie Irving-Gordon Hayward era, Smart was one of their most consistent players. He was Brad Steven’s warm safety blanket that could smother opposing stars.
And yet, Smart still barely gets proper recognition, especially outside of Boston. He’s been an All-NBA defender only twice in his career despite being a top perimeter defender for more than two seasons. He prefers it this way, especially since less focus on him allows the Celtics to win more.
"It's about winning," Smart told Bleacher Report. "A lot of this stuff, it's a popularity contest. That doesn't determine the type of defender I am. That doesn't mean that I'm a bad defender. That doesn't mean that I'm not a great defender. It just means that some people like others more than others."
Smart has been like this since he was starting in sports as a kid. His childhood growing up in Lancaster, Texas explains the type of player he is.
The emotional toll of losing big basketball games can't compare to Smart’s trauma of losing his brother, Todd Westbrook, to leukemia when he was just eight years old.
Being a good teammate is easy for Smart because he already faced a lot of challenges being a younger brother to Michael. When he was just 10 years old, Marcus often went out late at night to look for Michael in the streets. At best, he’d find Michael inebriated. Most of the time, he’d find his older brother barely able to move because of drugs. Still, he’d collect his brother and get him home safe. The mental rigors of an NBA season can’t compare to having to go to anger management classes at 15 because you developed self-destructive tendencies.
There’s a certain way people carry themselves when they make it out of circumstances like Smart, who channeled all his fire into basketball. No matter how much other players like Joel Embiid try to troll Smart, there’s no getting into his head.
Smart thrives off those things. Anything that’s going to add more superficial stakes, Smart will take it and play even harder. His passion has gotten the best of him early in his career, but now he’s mellowed down. Apart from his charity work and willingness to train with anyone who’ll have him, you won't see or hear a lot about Smart off the court. It’s the way his late mother Camellia would have wanted it.
“I want them to look at Marcus Smart and say he’s the nicest guy I have ever met,” Smart told USA Today. “I want to hear good things. I don’t want to hear any negative things about me. It makes me look bad. It makes me feel bad. It makes my family look bad. I’m a reflection of my mom, my brothers, and everyone in my family. How I carry myself is a reflection of how they raised me. I’ve learned that.”
For now, Boston should be happy they kept Smart. A city known for having the grittiest, most no-nonsense people, Boston has had several players like Smart in the past. From stars like John Havlicek and Larry Bird to role players like Dennis Johnson, the Celtics love players that reflect the fighting spirit of their city. By the end of his career, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Smart’s 36 in Boston’s rafters.