LAS VEGAS -- For a few fleeting moments at Monday’s USA Basketball mini-camp session at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center, an alternate future was playing out on the facility’s far court. Pushing the ball across half court was Oklahoma State sophomore-to-be Marcus Smart, a surefire high lottery pick who shocked most observers by returning to school for another season. Coming off a high screen, he maintained his dribble and then, not seeing what he wanted, swung the ball to the other side of the floor, into the waiting hands of Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving.
The duo played a handful of possessions together in the final few minutes of practice and looked good working off each other. Of course, this union could have been coming to a pro arena near you this coming fall had Smart jumped into this past June’s draft. Cleveland held the No. 1 overall pick, eventually choosing UNLV’s Anthony Bennett in a spot that certainly could have gone to Smart. Instead, Smart is using this week as one of the two college players at the camp (along with Creighton senior Doug McDermott) both as validation of his ability and his surprising choice.
"It just lets me know that I decided to go back to college, but I can come out here and perform with these guys," Smart said after the workout, when most of the media crush was focused on the millionaires seated around him. "... Not trying to be cocky or anything, but I’m out here performing against top-level guys and competing and doing things that I’ve done in college and beyond, but I’m doing them on a bigger stage against guys who have competed against the LeBrons and Kobes."
It’s certainly been an eventful last four months for the Cowboys standout, starting with Oklahoma State’s disappointing Round of 64 exit in the NCAA tournament to underseeded Oregon, and running through his choice to stay out of the draft, his gold-medal run with the U.S. Under-19 team last month and finally his presence at this camp, where he’s continuing his early indoctrination to the USA Basketball setup and international basketball in general.
Whatever lessons he’s learning this summer, though, they have come at a literal price, at least for the time being. Smart was considered by practically everyone as a mortal lock to be a top-five pick in June’s draft, and there was a significant chance he would have been gone by the second overall pick to Orlando. Had the Magic tabbed him, the rookie wage scale would have guaranteed Smart around $8 million, with the team holding two reasonably priced option years beyond that totaling almost another $9 million.
However well grounded you are, that’s a lot of money to turn down to play another year in college, especially with the anticipated 2014 draft class looking absolutely loaded. Even if Smart has a big year, there’s no guarantee he’ll be picked as high next season as looked possible this year. Understandably, it’s been a testing few months for a 19-year-old.
"Been a lot of stress, a lot of questioning, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of responsibility put on myself," Smart said about what this spring has been like. "Not from others, but from myself. Just a lot of trying to get my mind back and blocking out all the outside distractions and what other people think because it’s all on me."
Ten minutes of chatting after a practice is far from a perfect encapsulation of who a person (and player) is, but the poise and honesty with which Smart answered a series of questions foots with the overall perception, which basically is everyone who coaches him loves him.
Smart’s been a winner at every level and is the type of guy you can build programs around, current flaws in his game or not. He’s an extremely willing defender and a dogged competitor. So when Smart says "my team comes before me. Whatever I can do to help my team win, that’s what it’s all about," it’s believable, and those who know him best echo all of those sentiments.
"He’s not into himself whatsoever," Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford said. "I made a comment the other day that Johnny Manziel, it would probably do him some good to spend a day with Marcus Smart. [Smart’s] really a great role model who really knows how to handle himself."
Just because you’re poised and skilled enough to be projected as a high lottery pick, though, doesn’t mean there aren’t things that you can clean up in your game. Both Smart and Ford noted that Smart needs to shoot a better percentage from the field this season and improve on his assist-to-turnover ratio from last year as he continues to develop as a full-time point guard.
It also doesn’t mean that Smart won’t be getting some NBA-type competition while spending another year in Stillwater, either. Once Smart (as well as Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash) confirmed he was returning for this campaign, the Cowboys became the chic pick to finally knock Kansas off its Big 12 throne. Then, of course, the Jayhawks landed Canadian uber-prospect Andrew Wiggins to go with a really promising young core of talent.
Suddenly, a prospective Cowboy coronation has transformed into what should be an intense battle at the top of the conference, with most observers now perceiving Kansas as the favorite. Likewise, Smart went from obvious choice for league preseason player of the year to the obvious counterchoice to Wiggins, even though Smart has the advantage of having a year of high-level college basketball under his belt (and might be the savvy pick anyway).
You’d think that a young man who passed up many millions of dollars to come back to college might be a little irked at the interloper from the north intruding on his party, but Smart had kind words to say both about Wiggins and the challenge the Jayhawks will provide. Smart and Co. already trumped Kansas in Lawrence last season, and he’s looking forward to taking more shots at the conference kings before he (assumedly) departs for the pros next spring.
So, while the beginning of a dream come true, this week’s de facto fantasy camp with his future professional colleagues is not Smart’s immediate priority. Assumed lottery position or not, presumed All-American status or not, Smart knows the biggest statement he can make starting in November is to show his own improvements within the context of greater team success. "All of the individual accolades and honors and all that, it’s great," Smart said. "But the same time, you can have all that, but if you’re not winning games, if you’re not making noise with your team, that’s pointless. And that’s what a lot of players don’t understand. They think 'Oh, it’s all about me, I gotta get mine.' That’s cool, but you finally realize that when your team does good, everything else increases for you."