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Prospect Watch: Smart stealing spotlight, defying comparison

Photo: Brody Schmidt/AP

Marcus Smart's game is so versatile that it's hard to choose an appropriate NBA counterpart.

Marcus Smart stole headlines this summer when he announced he would return to Stillwater, Okla., for his sophomore season despite being a presumptive top-five pick. Play to your strengths, right?

The pilfering Smart is averaging more than four steals per game this season while also spearheading Oklahoma State's offense.

At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Smart is built like a combo guard and can score like a shooting guard. He lit up Memphis' athletic wing players last Tuesday for 39 points on 11-of-21 shooting. That's in addition to four boards, four helpers and five steals.

The sophomore guard can defend any player on the wing with his long arms and sturdy frame. Smart's slew of skills makes him hard to peg with a current NBA comparison.

He's a table-setter and scorer like James Harden but actually has an interest in playing defense -- and is really good at it. He can slash, finish and affect the game in every facet like Dwyane Wade but isn't quite as athletic as Wade was in his prime.

Derrick Rose, when healthy, can fly through the air and block shots like no point guard in the league. How about a help-defense shot block where your point guard jumps over the shooter? Smart can do that.

But as the NBA goes away from classic pass-first point guards, Smart steps in as the kind of scoring lead guard who can stuff the stat sheet and also score when your team needs a bucket.

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His magnificent all-around performance against Memphis caused Tigers head coach Josh Pastner to insist Smart is the best player in college basketball when he's looking to score.

Kevin Durant, who knows a little something about scoring, was in attendance for Smart's evisceration of the Tigers.

"He earned the right to take those shots," Durant told USA Today after the game about one of Smart's pull-up threes in transition. "Marcus can play in the league right now. Definitely."

No matter who you compare him to, Smart has an NBA-ready game and even flashed a post game against Memphis and the smaller Joe Jackson. He's not Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo as a passer, but neither is Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook.

Miami is comfortable with any one of at least five players bringing the ball up the court. The idea that a point guard is the only igniter on offense and has to have a pass-first mentality is an outdated philosophy, given the state of the NBA.

Smart represents that shift as someone you can trust in big moments to not only hit shots, but defend and find his teammates as well. He's everything you want in an NBA point guard.

All that being said, he's still consistently ranked behind the Wiggins-Randle-Parker trio. Draft Express has him sixth, as does NBAdraft.net, but Sporting News has Smart second, behind only Wiggins -- and that was before Smart's explosion against Memphis.

Best of the rest: Updates on other NBA prospects

Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- For now, Wiggins is the type of player who makes one or two great plays and then you don't notice him for long stretches. But when you look down at the stat sheet, he has 15 points and seven rebounds.

The game is effortless to him, as he showed against Iona and Towson, shooting a combined 10-of-17 and grabbing seven boards in both games. He's still shooting 58.5 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep on the season. With 16.8 points per game and 6.3 rebounds, Wiggins is, as Dennis Green would say, who we thought he was: a wildly athletic wing who can score, defend and rebound. In other words, he's a stud.

What will be telling is whether he remains efficient and, perhaps more importantly, remains aggressive against better competition during conference play.

Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- If there are concerns about Randle, we saw both the problem and the solution Monday night in Kentucky's controversial win over Cleveland State. Randle shot 3-for-10 from the floor and turned it over five times but grabbed 15 boards. The semi-truck of a forward also shot 9-for-11 from the charity stripe, a sign that even when his shots aren't falling, he will continue to attack, knowing he can finish at the free throw line. And he's unrelenting on the glass regardless of his scoring.

The turnovers, though, remain a bugaboo for Randle who now averages just under four per contest. Young post players have to learn how to feel double-teams and either finish through them or pass out of them. It's a skill even elite players like Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard struggle with at times. Luckily for the NBA, Randle has this entire season -- barring injury -- to work it out.

Unlike Griffin and Howard, Randle can make his foul shots, which means he can continue to be aggressive in the paint down the stretch of games without worrying about stepping to the line for two shots if he's fouled.

Alex Kennedy wrote in USA Today that NBA scouts and executives love Randle's versatile offensive game and his knack for drawing contact inside.

"Randle is very athletic and explosive, and he shouldn't have any problem transitioning his game to the NBA," Kennedy wrote. "He's a very fluid player who certainly passes the eye test."

Also telling is how willing Randle is to pitch in even when he's not scoring. Against Robert Morris, a game you'd expect Kentucky to dominate (and it did), Randle didn't have to be the team's primary scorer. He notched an efficient 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting and matched his season-high in rebounds with 15 in just 28 minutes.

Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- Parker has scored 20+ in every game this season despite playing just under 28 minutes per game for Duke. His efficiency is what really stands out, as Parker is taking more than 14 shots per game, but is making eight of them, shooting 58 percent from the floor and 60.9 percent from deep.

The intuitive comparison is former Blue Devil Grant Hill, but Parker's game compares more favorably to Carmelo Anthony's -- the Syracuse version, not the Knicks version -- in that he can get to whatever spot he wants to on the floor and score.

He's tops on Jeff Goodman's freshman list (subscription required), which essentially puts him as the best player in basketball given how highly people think of Wiggins and Randle.

Others are less convinced, including some scouts in the aforementioned group of NBA personnel quoted in Kennedy's article.

"Some scouts view Parker as a 'tweener' who doesn't have a body that blows you away," Kennedy wrote. "One scout described him 'flabby' and added that he'd be 'scared to take him without knowing how his body will develop.' This scout believes Parker's body could keep him from climbing ahead of Wiggins, Randle and others on draft night and worries that he'll struggle in the same way that offensive-minded tweeners like Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams and, most recently, Anthony Bennett have struggled in the NBA."

That's what makes the comparison to Carmelo so compelling: He has always been a small forward, but the Knicks have been at their best with Anthony playing small-ball at the four.

Parker's future could be in a similar role as a stretch four if he can't show he's quick enough to defend wing players at the next level -- or that he measures out at his listed height of 6-8.

Parker played in the post quite a bit against East Carolina and wound up with nine rebounds and six blocks. He followed that up by scoring four straight inside to help Duke take the lead against Vermont as the Blue Devils eked out a win. He finished with 26 points and eight rebounds.

James Young, G, Kentucky -- Julius Randle's stellar play has made it easy to forget the Wildcats got a cadre of elite recruits in the 2013 class. Young is one of them. After a slow start, the versatile guard has been a dangerous scorer for Kentucky.

Young torched Texas-Arlington for 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting and hit on five of 10 from deep. That was on the heels of a 19-point effort against Michigan State's talented backcourt.

At this point, Young has more confidence in his shot than it deserves, but at 6-7 and 200 pounds, the Michigan native can slash and finish as well.

Rodney Hood, G/F, Duke -- Hood, like Young, is playing in the shadow of a talented freshman teammate. While Parker tosses up his 20 and eight a game, Hood is pouring in 21.8 points per game of his own plus 4.8 rebounds.

A lanky wing player who could be a shooting guard or small forward in the NBA, Hood has a smooth game and a terrific lefty jumper. The numbers to start the season are pretty incredible: 66.7 percent shooting from the field and 68.8 percent from long-distance.

That sort of efficiency is bound to change, but Hood has proven he can score at will, with at least 18 points in five out of six games this year and at least 20 in four.

Hood is technically a sophomore, but sat out last season as a transfer from Mississippi State, which means he's 21 years old, making him by far the oldest player on this list.

Games of the Week

Thursday, Nov. 28: Wake Forest vs. No. 2 Kansas

Wake has benefitted from an extremely soft schedule, but with excellent inside-outside balance, their ability to rebound will test the elite athletes at Kansas. Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Wayne Seldon will all face players from Wake Forest capable of scoring and rebounding their position, the latter of which will be key. Kansas pounded Duke on the boards but won't be able to do the same to Wake.

Sunday, Dec. 1: Providence vs. No. 4 Kentucky

Providence is a pretty soft 5-0 at this point, but it has some dangerous scorers -- four players average double figures -- and possesses some bodies who can bang with Randle. The Friars can score inside and on the wing, which will test the mettle of Young and Andrew Harrison.

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