Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we turn our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: How does Marcus Smart get better?
It's hard to remember now, and for good reason: His freshman season lifted Oklahoma State out of its NIT doldrums, his return to college basketball was universally celebrated, USA Basketball made him the lone non-NBA player to receive an invite to team USA minicamp in July, and his own coach, Travis Ford, is running short on new ways to praise.
But as removed as it may seem, it wasn't so long ago that Marcus Smart's supremacy was a matter of some debate.
It was January, to be more precise. Smart, despite making Oklahoma State demonstrably better (particularly on the defensive end), was struggling from the field just as demonstrably. As of Dec. 6, he'd made just 45 percent of his 2s and 23 percent of his 3s. ESPN Insider's John Gasaway, in his first edition of his 2012-13 freshman rankings, listed Smart 14th. Sporting News Hall of Famer Mike DeCourcy (among many others) found said ranking to be laughable, and said so; DeCourcy had Smart as the best player in the country freshman or otherwise to that point because of all the things the statistics didn't say. The debate had all the makings of a knock-down, drag-out analytics v. eyeballs slobberknocker. The Court of Ken Tremendous nearly called an unprecedented emergency session.
That conflict was ultimately avoided. Smart's shooting crept into far more respectable territory, Oklahoma State kept winning, and everyone could officially agree to something they had already agreed upon in the first place -- that Marcus Smart was good at basketball.
That example isn't just a fond trip down memory lane. It's actually a helpful reference point. Because while everyone is rightly singing Smart's praises in advance of what promises to be a monster sophomore season, it's worth nothing that Smart has a chance to be not just a devastating defender and lauded leader of men, but a legitimately frightening offensive player too, provided he can do the one thing that held his individual play back last season: shoot.
Smart didn't shoot 23 percent from 3 for the whole season, for example, but his final tally -- 29 percent, or 38 of his 131 3s, which somehow looks worse when you spell it out -- wasn't particularly flattering. Nor was Smart's 46.5 percent mark from inside the arc. Smart drew enough fouls last season, and dished enough assists, to post a 102.2 offensive rating by the end of the year, but his 21.1 percent turnover rate combined with the poor shooting to keep what was otherwise a peerless freshman year from being an exquisite one.
I'm not as worried about the turnovers, and anyway, ballhandling (as a discrete skill) is much more difficult to improve on a year-over-year basis than shooting. Slightly tweaked mechanics and sheer workout repetition -- or even the former without the latter -- can produce better, smoother, more confident perimeter shooting. In July, Ford told the Oklahoman that was his biggest emphasis to his star point guard this offseason, that Smart had "really worked on it." Given the already legendary stories about Smart's work ethic, it is safe to assume he has shot somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million 3s this summer.
Which presents the Big 12 with a frightening prospect: A Marcus Smart who is not only a big, physical point guard, an immensely smart player who stomps through the lane and draws contact and rebounds and forces a ton of steals and makes his teammates better in every regard … but one who can do all of those things and then force you to worry he's going to step back and hit a 3. What do you even do against that? Is there anything to do?
I hope Marcus Smart doesn't change a thing, save the one, because I would very much like to find out the answer.