Marcus Smart with an average jump shot would be an NBA terror.
Much to the agony of Boston Celtic fans who love him, however, Smart — now in his fourth season — hasn’t reached “average” yet on his shot.
What’s more, a quick glance at Smart’s advanced shot-tracker stats provide no easy answers. But the same stats do dispel some myths, and, perhaps, offer some hope for the future.
A matter of measurements
First let’s look at the overall picture from NBA.com. It isn’t pretty. One wag actually put up a petition on the Boston Celtics Reddit.com page imploring Smart to “stop shooting.” (It appears to have since been taken down.)
Indeed, Marcus Smart cringers may take satisfaction that when we performed some early player-comparison runs, we came up with names like Lonzo Ball and Andre Roberson on the shooting side. (And Roberson’s only weak from 3-point range.)
Even if we look at true shooting percentage (which incorporates Smart’s still-decent free-throw stroking), Smart struggles.
At 39.3 percent TS, he is looking way up at at the league average. Likewise his effective field goal percentage is now down to 32.8 percent through 17 games per Basketball Reference. (The NBA.com table nearby covers 15 games.)
A shortage of bunnies: Type of shot 1
Whether Smart is catching and shooting, pulling up off the dribble, or shooting from 10 feet or less, the numbers are unhappy. (See top of table nearby, green box.)
He’s in the 30-36 percent range effective field-goal percentage, per both NBA.com and Basketball Reference.
But there’s at least one mitigating circumstance. (See part two of table, yellow box, as well as Basketball Reference play-by-play shot stats.) Through 17 games, Smart had taken one shot for an attempted layup or dunk on a pass for a teammate.
The point is, Smart has not had a normal share of opportunities to score easy inside shots on the fast break, back-door or pick-and-roll cuts. At 0.7 percent of his attempts, this is well below such Celtics as Al Horford (9.3 percent), or even Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (closer to 5 percent.) As we observed recently, thanks in part to the Kyrie Irving chemistry, Horford’s number of dunk attempts have nearly doubled.
We’re not suggesting Smart’s getting short-changed, i.e., that he doesn’t receive his fair share of assisted bunnies. The point is, statistically, Smart’s role in the offense doesn’t provide for quite as many of these easy shots. (See, for example, his impressive assist ratio of 25.6 percent.)
During the recent Heat game, Smart passed up a 2-foot layup (albeit with Heat bigs en route). Instead, he passed the ball out to a teammate who drained an open 3-pointer. (He thus missed an opportunity to make his first assisted-by-a-teammate bunny of the season. We’re not sure if Smart’s one such attempt was blocked or simply missed. We just don’t have the heart to drill down and find out.)
The J.R. Smith effect: Type of shot 2
During the Heat game, Brian Scalibrine also suggested that Smart appears to shoot better on “bad shots” than on “good shots.” You might call it the “J.R. Smith effect.” (It’s often been said that Smith seems to shoots better on the type of shots that have coaches screaming “no no no” than on wide open opportunities.)
A detailed breakdown suggests there’s some support for this, some contradictory evidence.
In the first chart nearby, you can see what Scalibrine’s talking about. Smart’s 3-point percentage actually declines the more wide open he is. Sadly, this doesn’t make him J.R. Smith, given he’s starting from a much lower baseline. But it is a degree of “J.R. Effect.” Indeed, 37.5 percent from 3-point land is a decent rate. Maybe Smart should just pass up the wide-open shots — but more about that in a minute.
(Footnote: Okay we cheated just a little bit in the table. We left out 3-point shots contested with a defender at 0-2 feet. These are a tiny part of the sample size, about 1.5 percent, and often come late in the shot clock — more about that in a sec. But if you include them, and merge them in to a combined 0-4 feet contest range, you get a truer picture. Smart’s shooting percentage declines smoothly the more wide open the shot is. It’s just over 30 percent on close contests, 27 percent on medium-open attempts, and 20 percent on “wide open” shots with 6 feet or more to the nearest defender.)
On the clock bipolarity
Looking at shot-clock numbers provides further insight.
Smart’s shooting percentage soars when he’s shooting very early in the shot clock, or very late. In between… we hesitate to even type out the numbers. Just take a look.
One caveat, of course. When an NBA player takes a shot early in the shot clock, he darn well should hit at a good clip. Often such shots are right at the basket on a fast break or quick drive. Late in the shot clock, however, it’s often (disproportionately to the average) more of a challenge.
No one is suggesting, therefore, that Marcus Smart should take a look at the shot clock and only shoot when it’s over 20 or under 5 seconds. Analytically, though, the fact that his makes are clustered in that time frame suggests, hopefully, that part of his shooting woes are simply mental. When he’s not taking time to think — early in the clock — and doesn’t have time to over-think — late in the shot clock — his shot is at its best.
In between, as they often say, “there’s a reason that guy is so open.” The only remedy is to improve your shooting, stop thinking so much, and force defenses to pay a little more respect.
Any number of NBA players have done this, including Rajon Rondo. (Rondo’s 3-point shooting percentage rose to .352, .365, and .376, respectively, over the three seasons ending in 2017.)
Free throws and ankles and the right play
Smart is shooting free throws at a solid rate, which somewhat undermines the “it’s largely mental” hypothesis, as well as the “J.R. Smith effect.” Smart’s .774 clip at the line so far this year is slightly above his career average.
One possibility is, Smart’s ankles (which may, pardon the expression, still be smarting, but he doesn’t complain about) could be a small factor. Stroking a free throw puts little stress on the lower body. Shooting a ball without over-thinking puts stress on them, but doesn’t create the anticipation-of-pain tension on the muscles and brain. Shooting a should-I-take this shot involves body stress, and unwanted time to think.
Smart spends a fair number of minutes with some of the Celtics’ best floor-spacers missing (Horford, Kyrie) and with lesser floor-spacers present. Admittedly, Smart has been the ultimate non-floor-spacer so far. In such a case, however, it makes sense for Smart to focus on setting up other shooters to the best extent he can. He’s doing that well. Smart’s assist percentage of 25.6 is above Horford’s (23.8) and respectably close to Kyrie’s (33.3).
Marcus in the Middle…
All these analytics, mitigators, and psychoanalysis aside, the bottom line remains.
Marcus Smart needs to improve his shot. Any number of players have done it, from Rondo to Blake Griffin, from LeBron James to Karl Malone. Smart can too, per our friends at Hardwood Houdini, who did a nice job of evaluating Smart’s actual stroke last month.
Indeed, a somewhat improved shooting percentage by Smart may be one of the team’s best means of reaching Banner 18. (See also, fewer team turnovers in tight games; Jaylen Brown free-throw shooting; Tatum and Horford not passing up 3-point shots.)
Celtic Nation is rooting for Smart to do whatever is needed to achieve that, for a simple reason:
Marcus Smart with an average jump shot is going to be an NBA terror.
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