By all accounts, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart had an off game Saturday afternoon against Texas Tech.
His final stat line certainly seemed to suggest as much. The freshman guard out of Flower Mound, Texas finished with three points on 1-for-6 shooting. He added five rebounds and two steals. He wasn’t (officially) credited with an assist and he committed three fouls. His point total was a season low, as were his 21 foul-plagued minutes.
But even in 21 “off” minutes, it was clear why Smart is said to be such a fit for the Thunder and a player the Thunder has shown significant interest in.
Smart, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound combo guard, easily could have padded his stats against the inferior Red Raiders. Instead, he chose to set the table for his teammates. Time and time and time again. Despite being the Cowboys’ best player and second leading scorer, Smart’s six shots were tied for fifth on the team Saturday. And he didn’t care one bit. He just kept swinging the ball, searching for a teammate’s next open shot and getting it to him on time and on target.
Equally impressive is how Smart never allowed his lack of scoring to negatively affect his desire to play defense. Throughout his time on the floor, he was a pest with his ball pressure, both in the halfcourt and in fullcourt presses. He also sacrificed himself for the good of the team. Smart’s second foul came as a result of sliding over to help a teammate who was beat off the dribble. As he positioned himself to take a charge, Smart was called for a blocking foul that forced him to sit the final 12 minutes of the first half.
Smart’s unselfishness didn’t do him any favors in the stat sheet. But when he was on the floor, he controlled every aspect of the game. Couple that with how he captained his team — pulling his players in for each dead ball huddle, shouting instructions from the bench during his foul-induced bench stint — and it became evident that Smart is a natural born leader.
In a Q&A with The Oklahoman following the game, Smart talked about today’s performance, the type of player he prides himself on being and how he sees himself fitting in at the NBA level.
Q: You justscored three points in a game that you probably easily could have had 30. Why was that?
A: You just have nights like that, when other guys are on. I mean, we had guys like Markel Brown and Philip Forte that were hot. Phil ended the game with 19. Markel ended with 21. So, I mean, I really didn’t have to do much because they were taking a lot of the load that I probably could have tried to take but they were taking the load. And they were on so, the game of basketball if a guy’s hot don’t shy away from him. That’s kind of our team motto. You can always do greater things if you don’t care who gets the credit. That’s a little John Wooden. I misworded that (laughs), but it’s the same scenario. But we kind of don’t really care who gets the credit. Like I said, they were hot and I wasn’t and I applaud them guys. They had a great game.
Q: You seem to really personify that mentality in your play. Do you feel like as a leader if you embody that then the rest of the team has to follow you?
A: Oh, definitely. Exactly. One of the leaders on this team, this team is going to follow you. So if I look at it that way and Markel looks at it that way then all these other guys, especially the older guys who have been here, these younger guys and me we’re going to follow us and it’s just going to make our team so much better.
Q: The unselfishness you showed on the court today, have you always played like that?
A: Oh, definitely. I’ve always had players (on my team) that I wasn’t always one of the best players out there. I also surrounded myself with good players so, I mean, I didn’t have to do so much work. That’s kind of how I’ve always been and how I’ve always played. Like I said, we have a great amount of talent here. I don’t have to go out there and score 30 points a night because we have other players that can contribute in other ways and I just try to find them when they’re hot.
Q: Coach Travis Ford has raved about your leadership. How do you view yourself as a leader?
A: That’s kind of what I pride myself on. I’m a competitor. I love to play. So I’m always looking for an edge or what I can do to make my team better. If that means I got to communicate more, speak up, call out what the defense is doing, then that’s what I’m going to do. Like I said, I really don’t care who scores as long as my team is winning. I think that’s one of the biggest attributes of being a leader. You really don’t care who gets the credit as long as the team is doing well. That’s just who I am.
Q: You had some early foul trouble today. I saw you on the bench after you had to sit and you were still standing and barking instructions at your teammates on the floor. What were you trying to accomplish in that moment?
A: If I go to the bench pouting because of foul trouble — obviously things weren’t going my way at that time — that lets not only my team but the other team know that they got to me, that they got to my head. I didn’t want to show that to my teammates. And let them know that just because I’m not doing well I’m not going to give up on the team. This is a team game. I’m going to still try to do what I can even if I’m not on the court to help my team win.
Q: Your defense really stood out today. You were pressuring the ball. You slid over to help a teammate by trying to take a charge. How much of a focus is that end of the court for you?
A: It’s a big focus because like everybody says defense wins games. That is true. You can score all the points in the world, but it comes down to who’s going to stop who. Who’s going to make that play? I kind of look at it like I don’t want to be embarrassed out there, so I don’t want my guy doing something that can embarrass me. If that means scoring 30 or scoring 20 on me, I don’t want that to happen because that’s my fault and everybody’s going to look at me like ‘Ah, look at this.’ And I just pride myself on that. And that’s one of the key things that my team needs is for me to step up and kind of give us that edge on defense. We practice it every day and they say it kind of starts with me so I try to exhibit that on the court and get it started early so my team can follow and we can get back to where we are and that’s a defensive-minded team.
Q: How do you make the determination of when to take over offensively?
A: If we go a couple of possessions without scoring or not getting a good shot, being a leader and as a point guard, that’s when you’ve got to step in and you have to control the game and the tempo. And if that means I have to get into the paint and do some stuff where I have to score then that’s what I’ll do. I can kind of see it and tell, especially if we go three or four possessions without scoring or getting a great shot then that’s kind of when I need to step in and kind of calm things down and get my team and the tempo back under control.
Q: How do you see yourself at the next level, playing the 1, 2 or more of a combo type?
A: Oh, I don’t know, man. (Laughs). I want to say combo, but I’m still improving on my shot and my ball-handling. But it’s really kind of hard to give me a primary position because I’m all over the place. But I can definitely see me probably at the next level as a combo guard.
Q: Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, has been here scouting you guys a couple of times now. What’s that like for you?
A: Actually, I didn’t know he was here. We don’t even mention that type of stuff in the locker room to each other. Our coaches don’t mention it and we’re not really focused on it. So we don’t even know he’s in the crowd. We just want to go out there and play. We always want to just go out there and try to play our hardest and play like it’s our last game because you never know who watches. But, definitely, now knowing that, that’s incredible. But like I said, we just go out there and give it our all every game.
Q: Do you pay much attention to the Thunder?
A: Yeah, man, they’ve been doing well. They’re a young team. That’s kind of one of my favorite teams. Them and the Heat. It’s kind of funny.
Q: You can’t say that around here, man?
A: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. It’s kind of funny. But KD is one of my favorite players. I definitely think they can do it this year. I know they can. They came close. Just get over that hump. They’re a very young team, but they’re experienced at it so I mean I’m pretty sure they’re going to do great things. So shout out to them and hopefully they take home the (title) this year.
Q: As an 18-year-old, is it easy to stay in the moment and enjoy college atmosphere, or is it hard to not look ahead and think how y0u might fit with this team or that team, especially with one showing interest in you right down the road?
A: As an 18-year-old kid, it’s definitely hard to stay focused, especially when you hear it and you see it all around you and people are talking about you probably can go to the next level and all this. Any kid or any person that says it’s not hard is a lie. I mean, it’s very difficult. But you’ve just got to have that self control. And my team helps me out with that. They help me focus on how the now is what I need to be focused on. And my parents, I just got a great supporting cast and I just focus on the now.