Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Marcus Smart Prepping for Gold Medal, Not NBA Draft
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the NBA Draft tips off next Thursday night, Marcus Smart won’t be anywhere near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Instead, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Oklahoma State guard will be in Prague, Czech Republic leading the USA U19 team into the World Championship.
Of course, Smart does let his mind wander to what it might have been like to hear David Stern announce his name — possibly as the No. 2 overall pick.
“Oh, definitely, I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t,” Smart told SNY.tv following USA U19 practice Thursday at the Verizon Center.
“Seeing the draft commercials, people are telling me, ‘That should’ve been you on that commercial with all the incoming freshman,'” Smart said. “It’s definitely odd when you look at that, and it’s just amazing. It’s just like wow, this year that could’ve been me. But I’m not really worried about it. If it’s meant for me to be in the NBA, I’ll be in the NBA.”
Smart was projected by some as the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft behind Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, and is currently projected as the No. 4 pick in the 2014 Draft by DraftExpress.com.
The three players ahead of him?
All are incoming college freshman — Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Aaron Gordon (Arizona). Gordon is Smart’s teammate on the U19 team that will compete in the FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague June 27-July 7.
“As long as he doesn’t think he’ll go second next year, it’s not a problem,” one NBA GM told SNY.tv of Smart.
The 2013 Draft is considered much weaker than the 2014 version because of all these superfrosh who either already are on college campuses (Wiggins, Randle) or soon will be (Gordon).
Yet Smart doesn’t worry about critics who say he should’ve come out this year to take advantage of the weaker draft.
“To those people that say that, you’re crazy,” Smart said. “You don’t know basketball because any competitor if you tell them that, it’s just going to make them strive harder to go out there and prove you wrong.
“Yeah, this class might be weaker than next year’s, but that’s a slap in my face telling me that because pretty much what you’re saying is, ‘Oh, his game’s not that good or he’s not that good to compete with next year’s guys who haven’t even played a game of basketball on the college level yet.’ I’m not saying that those guys aren’t good, they’re definitely great players. But they haven’t played a game of college basketball in their life yet.”
So far, the NBA’s loss has been USA Basketball’s gain.
During practice Thursday, Smart was clearly the floor leader on a team that includes two incoming college frosh in Gordon and Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss (Smart’s backup) and two rising high school seniors in Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. When Smart was off the floor, assistant coach Shaka Smart told the team that they needed to make up for Smart’s verbal coaching by being vocal themselves.
“I think if you look at the struggles of the USA in this event, some of it has probably been because guys like Marcus Smart have put their name in the draft,” U19 coach Billy Donovan told SNY.tv.
“Next year if there were a 19-and-under, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, you would have a long list of guys that may not end up playing because they’re getting prepared for the Draft.”
You could add Kentucky recruits Andrew and Aaron Harrison to that list as well.
Instead of preparing for the Draft, Smart is now the undisputed leader of this U19 team.
“I think his leadership, the intangible things he brings to the table, the competitiveness, the toughness, the respect that these guys have for him with how hard he plays,” Donovan said.
“He gets along with everybody, he gives everybody his time, he has an incredible awareness of things going around him and how people are doing on it . He’s really a great kid.”
That kid knows that the Americans haven’t dominated the U19 category the same way they’ve won other youth events. The U.S. has only won the U19s once since 1995 — in 2009 — and Smart is out to change that.
“This team right here is looking to change that and making a trend of going over there and dominating the 19-and-under,” he said.
Smart also believes this experience will make him even tougher next year as he continues to transition to the point guard position.
“It will help me big time,” he said. “This year was my first time playing primary position as a point guard. I obviously had a lot of learning to do, and I just felt like I still needed some more to learn. I got a year under my belt to help me, and I’m going to have another year and this is going to help me in a major way.”
And the NBA Draft will still be there for him in 2014.
**For more coverage of the USA U19 and U16 teams, click here.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.