WALTHAM, Mass. -- Back in late June, Marcus Smart's mother, Camellia, was sitting inside the Boston Celtics' suburban practice facility wearing a homemade T-shirt with her son's name and number on it, proudly describing how, despite routine dialysis appointments, she had missed only two of his college home games at Oklahoma State. A reporter wondered if she'd be able to make the long trek from her home in Flower Mound, Texas, to watch her son play as a pro in Boston, and Camellia was adamant that she would.
True to her word, there was Camellia sitting courtside next to Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck for Wednesday's season-opener against the Brooklyn Nets that served as her son's regular-season debut. And Camellia had maybe the best seat in the house when Smart raced her way for a fourth-quarter layup after a clean strip of Brooklyn All-Star point guard Deron Williams that highlighted her son's NBA introduction.
Smart finished with 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting with two rebounds, two assists, zero turnovers and a team-high four steals over 28 minutes of action. He was also a team-best plus-20 in plus/minus (five points better than his nearest teammate).
Keeping with the trend since Smart's arrival in Boston, Celtics coach Brad Stevens showered him with praise after Wednesday's game, both for fueling Boston's first-half surge with his defense, but also providing a calming presence when Brooklyn made its own second-half charge.
Stevens has often used the word "impactful" to describe Smart and suggested his defense has potential to change games. It sure did on Wednesday.
"Marcus wasn’t the sixth pick in the draft because he’s the next Kevin Durant, as far as scoring the ball," Stevens explained. "He’s going to be able to score it great, he can get to the paint, he can shoot the ball, but I don’t think anybody -- Marcus himself -- would say that he’s on pace to be a 30-point scorer at some point in his career. What separates him is the intangibles.
"I told him that before the game. We met real briefly and -- I said this to a group of kids [on Tuesday] -- I’ve coached a lot of guys that are great great guys and he’s one of the most unique people I’ve coached in his ability to raise the energy level of your team and you can see that already. When things were bad, things were going kinda south, you felt like he was going to help turn the momentum, just in an emotional way."
We've quickly learned here that Smart is advanced beyond his mere 20 years. He was billed to have NBA-ready defense and didn't take long to prove it, maybe most notably when he simply swiped the ball from Williams and raced the other way to put Boston up 21 with eight minutes to play in Wednesday's game. He suggested later than he must have had divine help to pickpocket such a great player like Williams. But we know better.
Smart is a special player and it's easy to see why everyone from Stevens to members of USA Basketball to his teammates rave about him. Even youngster-leery Kevin Garnett noted after Wednesday's game that Smart was "very impressive" and suggested that he's eager to watch more of Boston's three-guard pairings alongside Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley.
Synergy Sports advanced defensive data logged Smart as allowing just seven points on 11 possessions defended, but that included a 3-pointer by Mirza Teletovic after a scramble that had Smart racing to contest in the corner. He was otherwise stout, particularly against bigger players.
Midway through the third quarter, Joe Johnson did take advantage of the rookie, backing him down a good distance before swooping baseline for an easy layup. A quarter later, Smart got put in a similar position off a switch. This time Smart forced Johnson to the middle of the paint and the Nets star missed a little hook shot. Neither time did Boston's defense feel a need to scramble with help, and that resonated with Stevens.
"Marcus, he weighs 230 pounds, and his strength gives you a chance to guard guys that are bigger and taller," Stevens said, explaining his comfort level in going with that undersized Rondo/Bradley/Smart pairing. "Late in the game, Joe Johnson was isolated on the blocks and Joe Johnson could very easily have scored what he missed, but rather than giving up a 3 because we’re over-helping, or freaking out that a guard is being posted, we just let him guard him. Marcus gives you that luxury."
More challenges await as Smart heads home to Texas this weekend, including the likelihood of being matched up with James Harden on Saturday night in Houston. Smart will likely have additional family and friends on hand when he plays on Monday in Dallas, a short drive from Flower Mound.
Who knows how many games Camellia will be able to attend this season, but one thing is certain: There's a lot more jersey T-shirts with No. 36 and Smart on them at TD Garden. And that number is only going to grow if Smart plays the way he did on opening night.