Marcus Smart would have been one of the first players selected at the 2013 NBA Draft, but the Oklahoma State guard wisely decided to return for another year of collegiate basketball.
Smart was a consensus second-team All-American after he paced the Cowboys with 15.4 points and 4.2 assists per game as a freshman. He was named both the Big 12 Conference's player and freshman of the year, and he received the Integris Wayman Tisdale Award as the national freshman of the year from the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Just weeks after witnessing Kevin Ware suffer his devastating injury in the NCAA Tournament, Smart alarmed pessimists with his choice to go back to Stillwater for a second campaign after accomplishing plenty in his first season. Passing up on a guaranteed multi-year, multi-million dollar NBA contract could not have been an easy move, but it may end up paying dividends in the end.
"I am aware of how much money I am giving up, I am aware of that. It's a lot of money, but I feel like I made the right decision," Smart said at a press conference on Wednesday. "I feel like making that decision and giving up that much money showed me the true colors of some people in my life and the people close to me. It showed the true colors of how they really think and how they really feel of me."
Smart has had the versatility and athleticism to play three different positions throughout his amateur career, but he will have to commit to playing point guard mostly at the next level. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound guard ran the show for the Cowboys very well at Oklahoma State in his first year running the point, yet there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Smart's build allows him to overpower opposing guards and his confidence prompts him to finish among the trees a fair amount. However, he is not overbearingly quick with the ball or dangerous on the perimeter when left open. There are clearly some holes in his game that would be exposed at the next level.
Smart would most likely be the top point guard taken in this year's draft and that honor is his to lose in 2013-14. It is unlikely he is taken first overall next summer unless Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle all disappoint in their freshman seasons. However, Smart has a chance to improve his game to insure a much more successful professional career.
There were four players listed as 6-5 or shorter taken in the top 10 of last season's NBA Draft. Damian Lillard, who was selected sixth overall by the Portland Trailblazers, has emerged as the cream of the crop. Lillard played three seasons at Weber State before taking his talents to the Rose City, where he led all rookies this season with 19.6 points and 6.2 assists per outing. Dion Waiters, who played two seasons at Syracuse for Jim Boeheim, finished second among rookies in scoring with 14.6 ppg.
The two freshmen selected in last season's top 10 produced mix results. Bradley Beal was selected third overall after one year at Florida and had a decent rookie season while playing for the Wizards with 13.9 points per game, though he used his special ability to shoot from the outside. Austin Rivers, whose style of play at Duke was more similar to Smart's, had a forgettable rookie year with New Orleans and will hope for better results next season as a Pelican.
The 2009 NBA Draft featured two players with similar ability levels and styles of play to Smart in the top five. James Harden left Arizona State after two very productive seasons. The former Sun Devil was a complimentary player for his first three years in Oklahoma City and then evolved into a star. Harden had an All-NBA caliber season in his first year as a go-to guy in Houston in 2012-13.
Tyreke Evans was taken one slot behind Harden after a solid freshman year with Memphis. He initially looked like a perennial All-Star as he averaged over 20 ppg during his rookie year in Sacramento, but he has digressed each season even though his shooting percentages have improved by the year.
The difference between the current direction of Harden's and Evans' careers may be because of talent, though it could be purely because of circumstances. There are very few can't-miss prospects like LeBron James who will flourish anywhere they go. There have been plenty of great players to fizzle out of the NBA after beginning their careers with the wrong teams.
Harden had the opportunity to play with superstars with the Thunder and display his talents during a run to the NBA Championship before having an offense crafted around his skill set. Evans has felt the pressure of leading the Kings back to the playoffs since he arrived in Sacramento, and has had to deal with the uncertainty of his and the franchise's future throughout his career.
Neither Evans nor Harden are true point guards, which is the position Smart will most likely need to master at the next level. Managing a professional offense requires an elite level of basketball savvy. Smart going back to school to hone his skills and continue his education could end up being a decision that sets him apart down the road.
There is no guarantee Smart will land in a better situation by playing an extra season of college basketball. However, it will prepare him better to persevere through any rough waters in his future. Oklahoma State not only got Smart back, it also will be returning Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash, who were both selected to All-Big 12 teams. The Cowboys had arguably the best backcourt in college basketball in 2012-13. With their trio returning, they are a national title contender.
"This is an exciting time for Cowboy basketball," coach Travis Ford said. "All three of these guys will have an opportunity to compete at the next level. They realize and understand that the individual awards they received come from great team chemistry, playing well together as a team and winning basketball games. Staying in school also provides them with an opportunity to continue their education, which is very important to them and their families."
Smart's decision is unquestionably risky, but it is also very admirable. It can't be easy for a 19-year-old to pass up on millions of dollars and the dream of playing in the NBA to spend another year in Stillwater. Oklahoma State was ousted from the NCAA Tournament a little earlier than expected as it fell to a red-hot Oregon squad in the third round.
"Definitely, it motivated me a lot," Smart said. "All my life I've been a winner, back-to-back state championships and to come in and finally make the NCAA Tournament. It's something I had been waiting for all my life. This team felt like we had a lot more to accomplish and we were a better team than that. This is not the way we wanted to go out and it helped motivate me a little more to come back next year."
Smart accomplished more in his first season at OSU than most college players do in their entire careers. His decision to return to school has its flaws along with benefits. While only time will tell whether his choice ends up being beneficial or detrimental, Smart is surely a player to keep an eye on in 2013-14.