SANTA MONICA, California -- During a sleepy morning in a mostly empty gymnasium last week, Marcus Smart bolted from the right wing to catch an inbounds pass thrown from the opposite sideline. After collecting the ball, Smart dribbled toward the left corner, turned over his right shoulder and swished a three-pointer while falling out of bounds. Quickly standing up, Smart expressed his outrage at an invisible referee. "And one! You gotta call that!" he said. "C'mon, ref. I know that's LeBron, but you gotta call that!"
The faux outburst injected some much-needed levity into an otherwise mundane workout at Saint Monica High School in Los Angeles. Since arriving here in early April, Smart, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound point guard who recently completed his sophomore season at Oklahoma State, has been put through paces twice each weekday alongside several other player-clients of the Wasserman Media Group. The group, which includes Kansas center Joel Embiid, UCLA forward Kyle Anderson and Arizona State guard Jahii Carson, has been staying at an apartment complex nearby. When they're not toiling in the gym, they keep a busy schedule to prepare themselves for the NBA draft, which will be held June 26 in Brooklyn. Another important phase will take place at the NBA's predraft combine, which is being held this week in Chicago.
"Man, I'm excited. The only time I've been to Chicago is for the McDonald's All-American game," Smart said as he sat in the bleachers following the workout. "I'm just trying to go in there and make sure I'm calm and have fun. It's a whole new world now. It's a business. You have to carry yourself as a professional."
Smart turned 20 years old on March 6, and like anyone that age he is a work in progress. Physically, he may look like a ready-made NBA specimen, but during his sophomore season at Oklahoma State he revealed shortcomings in both his game and his personality. Though he had supposedly spent the summer prior working on his long-range shooting, Smart converted just 30 percent from behind the three-point line, which is about the same clip he made as a freshman. He attributes those struggles partly to a previously undisclosed injury to the tendons in his shooting hand, but he acknowledged that he has been working hardest on that aspect of his game. That work appears to be paying off. At one point during the workout last week, Smart made 15 consecutive catch-and-shoot threes, counting them out as he sank each one.
Yet, the disappointments of Smart's season extended well beyond the three-point line. His inability to manage his temper while the Cowboys struggled to finish eighth in the Big 12 overshadowed much of his on-court success. His games were pockmarked by unseemly flops, excessive trash talk, a petulant kick to a chair and, most memorable of all, an intemperate dash into the stands to shove a fan during the waning moments of a Feb. 8 loss at Texas Tech. Because that exchange was tinged by race -- Smart said the fan, who is white, directed a racial epithet at him -- it made national news. It also prompted the Big 12 to slap Smart with a three-game suspension; Oklahoma State lost all three games amidst a seven-game losing streak that nearly cost it a spot in the NCAA tournament.
When he takes the court this week in Chicago, Smart will have a chance to display his improvement as a shooter, but the real action will take place away from the cameras in hotel conference rooms. That's where Smart and the other prospects will meet with executives from several NBA teams, who will no doubt ask Smart about that night in Lubbock. "It's going to be brought up by everybody," said Flip Saunders, the President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a lottery team that has requested the chance to interview Smart at the combine. "He has great talent, and I do believe the pro game is more suited to his physicality and how he plays. But his team didn't have the success it was expected to have this season and part of that was due to his inconsistency. So those are questions that are going to come up."
If Smart had entered the draft as a freshman, he would likely have been a top-three pick. Given that he is projected to be selected a few spots lower this year (partly because of the strength of this year's class), the conventional wisdom holds that Smart made a mistake by going back to school. That, however, is a short-sighted argument. The weaknesses Smart showed last season would almost certainly have been revealed if he were an NBA rookie. He won't make quite the same money in his first season, but he is still entering the league more seasoned as a player and person. The lessons he learned left a few scars but no regrets.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I didn't have times where I was like man, it'd feel good to have some money in my pocket, but at the same time college life is a great experience," Smart said. "The ultimate goal was for me to go to the NBA. Well guess what -- I'm still having the chance to go to the NBA. Everybody has the right to voice their own opinions, but they're not living my life."
It's understandable why Smart wanted to be a kid for one more year. For most of his childhood, his weekends were filled with AAU games and practices, while his friends were going to parties and dances. He grew up in a rough area of Lancaster, Texas, just outside Dallas. "I wouldn't say it was the worst neighborhood, but it wasn't the best, either," he said. As the youngest of four boys, Smart either shared a room with his older brothers or slept on a couch in the living room. "Until I got to college, I never had a room to myself," he said.
Thus, when it came time to choose between the NBA's money and another year in Stillwater, Smart decided the money could wait. "I was living the life," he said. "I didn't have to pay rent. I got to walk around campus and everybody knew who I was. College was the first time I had weekends just to go out and have fun with my friends. I didn't want to be regretting 30 years from now that I didn't fully enjoy my college experience."
Smart was fortunate to have two loving parents raise him, but because his mother and father both worked, they rarely attended his basketball games on the weekends. The family had a roof over their heads and food on the table, but they had their share of struggles. Smart's mother spent much of her time taking care of her brother, who is paralyzed from the waist down. When Smart was 9 years old, one of his brothers, Todd, died of leukemia at the age of 33 (that's why Marcus wears that number on his jersey). Another brother, Michael, almost died of a drug overdose a few months later.
Yet, despite these challenges, no one in Smart's family pressured him to turn pro last year. Sadly, that is rarely the case for young men in his situation. "You see a lot of parents push their kids out the door because at that time, that's what they need," Smart said. "But my mom was so supportive of me it was crazy. Whatever decision I made, it was going to be what I wanted to do."
Smart's sophomore season started in promising fashion and included a 39-point outburst in a win over Memphis in November. From there, he suffered a steady fall from grace, which bottomed out with the ugly incident at Texas Tech. Smart recognizes that he will always be remembered for what happened that night, but when asked about it last week, he expressed more resignation than remorse. "Do I regret it? Yes, I do, just because as an athlete and being in that light, that's not how you're supposed to act," Smart said. "But I can't take it back. It happened. It was just a lesson for everybody to learn."
Nor does Smart back off from his contention that the fan, Jeff Orr, called him the N-word, even though nobody else heard him say it and the GoPro camera under the bench never picked it up, though it did record Orr calling Smart "a piece of crap." "It's my word against his. I'm not really going to go back on that," Smart said. "I don't even want to talk about it. If I'm too busy looking in the past, how can I see what's in front of me?"
The particulars are less important than what the incident revealed -- namely, that Smart has had a difficult time controlling his temper on the court. That could be problematic, especially in the likely event that he is drafted by a bad team. "Anger is not a problem for me," he insisted. "Having that drive is what makes me a competitor. Sometimes your competitive nature can take over and you have to find that line to balance it out."
Smart also remains unapologetic about the way he plays. Reminded that the NBA issues fines for flopping, Smart shook his head. "They won't fine me because it's going to be legit," he said. "I don't understand what people call flopping. Isn't drawing a foul what you're supposed to do? When you're driving, you throw your body. You draw a foul. If that's a flop, then everybody flops because everybody's trying to draw a foul."
Frankly, it is hard to imagine Smart being a flop in the NBA. His talent and work ethic are undeniable, and wherever he has gone he has drawn rave reviews for his character and leadership skills. He made some mistakes along the way, but because of that he will enter the NBA more prepared to be a professional. "The whole point of college is to find yourself, to figure out things before you go into the real world," he said. "So I have no complaints. I'm blessed. I'm going to get to do something I love to do and get paid a lot of money for it. Whichever team picks me, I'm going to make sure that they're not disappointed."