If he could change it he would, he would erase those last few steps and the push. But he can’t cut himself in half; he is a passionate person. Because Marcus Smart longs to win, desires it, is so emotionally invested in it, sometimes he becomes frustrated to the point of blindness. But he is no longer a child acting upon impulses. He looks like a man and must act like one. Add to that, time is what time is. In this era of multiple lenses and no secrets anywhere you cannot erase what you wish you could, what you want, you cannot walk things back- this frustrates the young and old alike. The difference is the young cannot see around the corner. They don’t know. All it takes is one small thing to change everything, to rewrite a script. The thing is, before this weekend, the thought of Marcus Smart on a NBA roster was tantalizing even as he was in the shadow of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. A lottery bound team like the Lakers and just about everyone else are where they are because they need a combo guard the size of Marcus Smart, a six feet four and 225 pound body in the backcourt, a player with his toughness, his skill as a ball handler, his talent off the ball, his finishing through contact, his physical defense, his steals, his rebounding, his leadership and the way he competes. He once said “Once the ball is thrown up you forget about everything except what is happening on the floor. Nothing else matters.”
And then this weekend happened. Because of it the Marcus Smart lens has grown to include things that have nothing to do with basketball the sport and everything to do with basketball the business. Marcus is being viewed as if he has changed the most important thing that he or any lottery player can offer a team: himself, his character, his resiliency, how he handles frustration. Make no mistake, amid the self promotion and celebrity and entertainment, the NBA is a tough world. You are asked to achieve under duress. You are asked to compete in games. You are asked to suffer and then to overcome suffering. You are asked to take contact, some of it illegal, some of it crossing the line. You are asked not to cross the line yourself. That alone will derail your career.
Young players, all of them, are a risk. Kobe Bryant was a risk. It was why so many teams passed on him. They were not sure if a shooting guard could have success without college. Kevin Durant was a risk. They were not sure if he was too slight to handle the physicality. Chris Paul was a risk. They were not sure if he was big enough. But talent has a way of minimizing risk. That and maturity. It is why players are interviewed, why NBA Security prepares detailed reports on players past transgressions just in case. It is better to be forewarned. It is the basic rule of life, what we all know to be true but pretend we don’t: people don’t change.
Perhaps it is unfair but all mistakes are not equal. Marcus Smart the 19 year old from Texas, the combo guard with the grown man’s body, the player who decided to forgo the lottery last year, the one who was applauded for his decision to sacrifice money, that Marcus Smart did something he should not have. Simply, he crossed into territory that was forbidden when he pushed a heckling, obnoxious fan. It made people wonder about Marcus Smart. Is he mature enough to handle the rigors of an NBA game, a NBA crowd? Can he come apart; this is an unforgiving world? Is he the guard version of Demarcus Cousins, someone unable to control their impulses? Or is he just a kid overwhelmed with the pressure of his team and his position in the draft and his future and the rest of his life?
As a freshman he was Big 12 Player of the Year and Big 12 Freshman of the Year. He led the conference in steals. He averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He won the Wayman Tisdale Award for the nation’s top freshman. In his fourth collegiate game he had 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 assists, 4 steals against NC State and his defense was suffocating. Later that year he entered the NCAA tournament as his team was the #5 seed and matched up against Oregon, the #12 seed. He had a terrible game then. He turned the ball over five times, he missed free throws and even though he had a size advantage over another freshman, Oregon’s Dominic Artis, he was not able to take advantage of it. Dominic started the game with a steal and a layup. Marcus was 5-13 with 14 points and very passive; his team lost by 13. He was sorrowful after the game believing he let the team down. “I did not contribute the way I wanted to.” But now, given everything you have to wonder if that upset loss had more to do with pressure than a freshman playing in his first NCAA game. Did the heightened expectations get to Marcus Smart? And if it did how does that figure into his NBA future?
The NBA draft is not perfection. Sam Bowie was taken over Michael Jordan. Michael Olakwandi was taken over Vince Carter. Darko Milicic was taken over Carmelo Anthony. Currently Marcus Smart is considered a strong lottery pick, just out of the top five. Jabari Parker may stay at Duke one more year just like Marcus Smart did last year. That would certainly bump Marcus Smart into the top five. The incident this weekend has no reflection on his talent and his future NBA success. But all NBA teams are not equal. Whoever the Lakers select in the draft, that 19 or 20 year old will sustain a certain amount of pressure that exists nowhere else. The last lottery pick of the Lakers was Andrew Bynum, a 17 year old. He won two titles. The 17 year old before him was Kobe Bryant. He won five titles. The Lakers nation of countries and passions and devotees are not known for patience; they expect brilliance to show itself in a predictable manner so if it is Marcus Smart who takes over point guard duties from Steve Nash, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Farmar and whomever else D’antoni throws in there next, can this young player be what people expect? More importantly can he manage it when adversity strikes and Facebook and Twitter and talk radio beat him into the ground? Dwight Howard could not take it and he was 27 years old.
The incident this weekend is one more thing on the bio. But it is not the last line, not the last sentence, surely not the last word. Marcus Smart’s draft stock will depend on who is in the draft and who is out. It will depend on Marcus’s performance during the tournament. It will depend on the pre-draft camps in Chicago. Maybe Marcus Smart will be a Laker next year. Maybe he won’t. But this much is true. He has to reach a point in which his frustration is not meted out with aggression. He can’t kick chairs. He can’t touch fans. He can’t continually apologize. In January, after the kicking chair incident he said, “Today wasn’t one of my proudest moments. I lost my composure.” A few weeks later after he pushed a fan he said, “This is not how I conduct myself.”
The world of Marcus Smart is fast moving. In over a month he will be in the NCAA tournament. Then he will be in the draft. And then the NBA. Whatever growing up he has to do, whatever maturing that needs to take place- the world will know. We will see it. Or we won’t. This is the tradeoff for the talented, everything they are, in one way or another, is exposed. And then criticized and rebuked. There is no graceful way to say you were wrong. Or sorry. The only thing to do is to not let it happen again. Ever.