Seemingly since the day he arrived as the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Marcus Smart has been the glue that’s kept the Celtics together. And while the 26-year-old’s contributions have rarely amounted to much statistical significance—his career 9.9 points per game isn’t anything to write home about—those familiar with Smart know his impact as a locker-room leader and defensive presence go far beyond the box score.
A tireless, blue-collar type who wins with hustle, the 6’3” Smart has emerged as one of the sport’s most versatile defenders, earning All-Defensive recognition (his second first-team selection in as many years) on the strength of his 1.7 steals per game in 2020. Though scoring will never be his bread and butter, Smart did show improvement in that area, registering a career-high 12.9 points per game (albeit on horrendous 37.5-percent shooting) this past season.
ESPN showed the rambunctious guard plenty of love in its annual NBA Player Rankings released earlier this week, positioning Smart a respectable 37th overall. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy finds himself slotted ahead of household commodities like Kristaps Porzingis (41st), Victor Oladipo (47th) and Blake Griffin (65th). He’s also nipping at the heels of Bucks sharpshooter Khris Middleton and resident triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, who rank 35th and 36th respectively. Smart joins teammates Jayson Tatum (No. 11), Jaylen Brown (32) and Kemba Walker (48) among ESPN’s top 50 while Gordon Hayward, who defected from Boston to Charlotte in free agency, is also within that range at 45th overall.
Only two players, Miami’s Bam Adebayo (the recent recipient of a $163-million max extension) and reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, made bigger leaps than Smart, who climbed 50 spots in this year’s rankings. Morant’s reward for leading the Grizzlies in scoring (17.8 points per game) was ascending 62 spots from 93rd to 31st while Adebayo experienced a similarly meteoric rise, soaring from 81st to 13th (+68).
This year’s ranks, which ESPN rolled out over a several-day span, feature LeBron James first overall followed by runner-up Anthony Davis (who the Lakers made a whole lot richer earlier this month) and third-ranked Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic and two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard round out the top five.