The polarizer: Marcus Smart

Every year there is a schism between college basketball writers, and every year that schism is best illustrated by the thoughts on a single player. Last year the player was Mike Scott.

Group A (more in a moment) felt that Scott was a great player – many even voted him an All American. But when Group B mentioned him in the same breath as Thomas Robinson and Anthony Davis, Group A’s reactions ranged from dismissive to shocked to insulting.

This year that player is Marcus Smart. Group B feels that Smart is a great player – many (if the season ended today) would vote for him for post season awards. But when Group B fails to mention him in the same breath as Cody Zeller or Anthony Bennett, Group A’s reactions range from dismissive to shocked to insulting.

Group A is typically characterized by conventional guys. They love the eye test. They see no weakness in stats like points per game or rebound margin. And they’re confident in their ability to judge player values based solely on several games seen each season. One of their ringleaders is Mike DeCourcy from the Sporting News. Here he is writing about Smart, while also expressing shock towards Group B:

After watching Smart dominate yet another major opponent (South Florida) in yet another Cowboys victory, it felt like time to thumb through the Sporting News college basketball preview issue to double-check whether he’d been included on one of our three All-America teams. Alas, we missed on that, but he was one of the five players on our all-freshman team.

That still puts us far ahead of the person who, with a number of games passed, ranked Smart as the No. 14 freshman in the nation.

No. 14! Among freshmen!

People, Marcus Smart has been the best college player in the nation to this point.

Group B is typically characterized by unconventional guys. While they appreciate the eye test, they point out that stats like points per game and rebound margin have much more meaningful replacements. They got their start in the 1950s when Dean Smith became dismissive of those same stats, and began charting possessions. One of their ringleaders is John Gasaway, who is the writer DeCourcy was talking about in his column about Smart.

Gasaway responded with – shock! – data, and lots of it.

I’m pretty sure Mike was referring to me, for I did indeed name Smart the No. 14 freshman in the nation last week. Actually, I thought I was pretty effusive in my remarks:

After coaching the FIBA U-18 team for the United States last summer, Billy Donovan told anyone who would listen that Marcus Smart was a special player, and Smart has certainly lived up to Donovan’s hype. The freshman’s already asserted himself as the third Cowboy — along with Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown — who’s on the floor more or less all game, every game. And continuing with our theme of big point guards, Smart is the biggest of the lot at 6-4 and 225 pounds. That size gives him the unique distinction of having not only a great assist rate but also a pretty decent (16.5) defensive rebound percentage. (Smart may also be the only point guard to rank among the nation’s top 400 players in block percentage.) His best contributions on offense by far have come from the aforementioned assists and at the free throw line, for he’s yet to show perimeter range and is shooting just 46 percent inside the arc.

If that sounds like I like Marcus Smart, I do. I’ve watched his games, I’ve marveled at his motor, I’ve shouted my praise from the rooftops in real time, and I was careful to get in on the ground floor of Oklahoma State fever.

But the funny thing about Smart is that his shots just have not gone in. That, in a narrow journalistic sense, is the really interesting story presented by Smart so far. I love him, you love him, Mike loves him, we all love him, and I’m convinced we’re right to feel as we do. But his shots just have not gone in.

Ordinarily when a player’s shots don’t go in, we can cite any one of a number of exculpatory circumstances on his behalf. He has to carry the offense, say, and so he’s attempting an insane number of shots. Or maybe he’s a point guard who has to not only run the offense but also do a lot of scoring.

Alas, those alibis don’t work so well with Smart.

The crux of the argument seems to come down to the eye test. And Marcus Smart definitely looks good on the court. He's big, he's aggressive, he's athletic. Stepping back a year, Mike Scott was big and aggressive, but he didn't look like an NBA star. The same argument was used against Doug McDermott. And Smart is the opposite – when he runs up and down the court he looks like he should be starting for a good NBA team.

But basketball is a simple game, and looks don't matter. Production does.

The great thing is that it’s only early December, and so we still have ~25 games in which to evaluate Marcus Smart, who is a player both groups enjoy watching. And if he uses those ~25 games to  convince Group B to vote for him in the Player of the Year or Freshman of the Year races, then Group A will inevitably chalk that up to their superior eye-test ability, and Group B will inevitably chalk that up to Smart finally becoming the player that Group A thinks they’re watching now.

So pick a side sports fans. Apparently, it's the thing to do.