Marcus Smart says he’s a junkyard dog.
His coaches say he’s a winner.
“All he cares about is winning,” Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga told Boston.com. “He’s really just all about winning.”
Smart — who has been with the Celtics since the team selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft — is a player whose impact is not always the most obvious after looking at the box score. The 24-year-old averaged 10.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds last season, while shooting 36.7 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from behind the arc. His game is far from flashy, and even if he doesn’t return to the Celtics next season, there’s no reason to believe things will change.
But there is a reason Smart averaged 29.9 minutes per game off the bench this postseason, becoming one of 22 players in the league to record at least 1,000 playoff minutes over the course of the last three seasons.
Despite making free throws he wants to miss, missing free throws he wants to make, and hoisting ill-advised three-point attempts with 20 seconds left on the shot clock — his three-point shooting percentage dipped to 22.1 percent during the playoffs — Smart makes the Celtics a better team in more ways than one.
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His usual repertoire of “winning plays” includes hustling for loose balls, deflecting passes, and contesting shots. Mixed in are things like getting under NBA MVP James Harden’s skin and blocking shots from 6-foot-11 center Giannis Antetokounmpo. Together, they are what makes Marcus Smart, well, Marcus Smart.
“His passion for the game and passion for winning, it’s very obvious right away,” Larranaga said. “He has the ability to inspire other people with the way he plays. When you watch the things he does — whether you’re on the court or you’re on the bench or you’re coaching or you’re playing — it makes you want to be a part of it.”
Larranaga, who regularly works one-on-one with Smart, praised the guard’s selfless nature and apparent addiction to sacrifice.
“The way he throws his body around is unbelievable,” he said. “He’ll do anything to win. Any ball that’s on the floor, he’s diving for it. He came back from his thumb injury and immediately dove on the floor the first play he was back. I thought that was a really good example of the person he is. He cares about the team more than most.”
The selflessness that defines Smart’s game extends off the court, too, Larranaga noted. Smart’s YounGameChanger Foundation has raised thousands of dollars to support families with seriously and chronically ill children.
“He’s just a very giving person,” Larranaga said. “It’s real. What you see is what you get with him. It’s not fake.”
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Over the course of Smart’s four seasons in the NBA, Larranaga said he believes the guard has improved in “all areas” — attributing some of the growth to increased maturity and higher level of comfort. He identified passing as a specific part of Smart’s game that has grown since his rookie year.
“He’s been one of our best passers the last couple years,” Larranaga said. “I don’t know if people realized that about him when he was first coming in, what a great passer he is. You only saw how he makes his teammates better at the defensive end of the court, but now, I think everyone recognizes he also makes his teammates better at the offensive end.”
While averaging a comparable number of minutes, Smart’s assist average increased from 3.1 his rookie year to 4.8 last season. His assist percentage — an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the floor — also increased from 16.1 to 23.4 percent. Although Smart’s assist-to-turnover ratio has stayed rather consistent during the regular season, it improved from 1.25 to 2.22 during the playoffs. He is becoming a facilitator on both ends of the floor.
“I told him I was a big Magic Johnson fan growing up because of the same thing, I thought he made his teammates better,” Larranaga said. “I think Marcus shares a lot of those same qualities. You saw his joy for the game in those Celtics-Lakers battles, and I think he does share some similarities with Magic in that way.”
As for what’s next for Smart? He is a restricted free agent, meaning he could test the market and sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Celtics will have the opportunity to match any deal. Boston has extended a qualifying offer and has expressed interest in bringing him back. But whatever happens, Larranaga has the utmost confidence in Smart’s future.
“He’s just matured as a person and you see that in his game,” Larranaga said. “I think he could do anything. I really think he has the ability, the passion, the intelligence, [and] the toughness. He has all the things that great people have.”