Driving school: Smart the bulldozer?

Marcus Smart has improved his shooting dramatically. Next up: attacking the hoop. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

BOSTON -- The biggest knock on Boston Celtics rookie guard Marcus Smart coming to the NBA was his shooting, and there was a whole bunch of "We told you so!" from pundits when the No. 6 overall pick shot just 27.6 percent from the field over the first full month of the season.

When the Celtics traded away Rajon Rondo last month, Smart was thrust further into the scrutiny spotlight, all while Boston tried to teach the 20-year-old how to be a point guard at the pro level. But Smart quietly has spent the past month showing strides in multiple areas of his game, most notably his shooting, which culminated in a clutch corner 3-pointer in the final minute of Boston's 108-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night at TD Garden.

"The biggest knock on my game coming into the league was that I couldn't really shoot," Smart said. "Over the last 12 or 13 games, I think I've been shooting the ball pretty well."

In 16 appearances since Dec. 8, the night Smart had his best performance as a pro while sparking a monster Boston rally in a double-overtime loss to Washington, Smart has shot 45.2 percent from the floor overall and 42.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He's averaging 7.1 points, 3.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 23.3 minutes per game in that same span.

Smart's role has increased again in the aftermath of the trade that sent Jeff Green to Memphis. He's averaging 30 minutes per contest over the past three games and his development will be one of the biggest topics around this team the rest of the season.

It's only natural that we will all look for other areas of weakness in Smart's game. And the new focus is likely to fall on his lack of aggression toward the basket. Smart appears reluctant to drive at times, seemingly still finding his way in the pick-and-roll game at the NBA level.

The stats back this up. The league's player tracking data logs drives -- or any touch that starts 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the basket, excluding fast breaks. Smart has only 30 drives this season, a meager number when you consider Phil Pressey has 63 in nearly half the floor time. What's more, Synergy Sports data has Smart averaging a mere 0.629 points per play during possessions he's finished as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, shooting just 34.8 percent in those situations.

In a league in which point guards creating cracks in opposing defenses is just as integral as the constant ball movement that Boston desires to create, it's on Smart to develop that aspect of his game.

Evan Turner, maybe Boston's best remaining dribble penetrator and the team's starting point guard, was asked why Smart might be a reluctant driver at the moment.

"I think his ankle's still getting better," Turner said, referencing an injury that sidelined Smart for 10 games into early December. "I don’t know, he tackles you on defense, so he might as well bulldoze you on offense. We're going to work on that with him. I think that's going to be part of his game, part of his development."

Maybe because of the progress he's seen in Smart in other areas, Turner seems confident Smart will figure out that part of his game.

"He'll be fine," Turner said. "He's getting the hard part out of the way first."

Smart certainly seems to have a way of correcting issues as they arise. In the immediate aftermath of Rondo's departure, he endured turnover woes that cost him some playing time. In the first six games after Rondo's departure, Smart turned the ball over 16 times. In the seven games since, he's turned it over just five times.

It's not hard to see the correlation between Smart's improved ball security and that of the Celtics overall. Members of the coaching staff rave about Smart's work ethic and his desire to fight through whatever adversity arises. Just like he powered through his rookie shooting woes.

"I don't know if you know [assistant coach] Darren [Erman], but Darren's like the most annoying person ever, and he'll hunt you down to do whatever he thinks you should do," Turner joked Tuesday. Erman routinely works with players on skill work, whether its defensive film review or shooting drills.

"[Smart has] done a great job, a lot of repetition," Turner added. "Shooting's a confidence thing and getting on a roll and riding that wave, and he's done a great job with that. And I think the biggest thing is his next step is using that body and getting into the paint. Shooting the 3 is always great and it's pretty for [observers], but that's a big body, he can get into the paint and he could probably do a lot more."

Smart's confidence clearly has grown in catch-and-shoot opportunities. Celtics coach Brad Stevens long has contended that Smart's shooting percentages were diminished at the college level by his team's need for him to carry the offense and how he often took late-clock shots. At the NBA level, teams are challenging him to shoot and he's made them pay in recent games.

The league's player tracking data shows that Smart has an effective field goal percentage -- a mark that adjusts for the value of 3-pointers -- of 59.3 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities. That percentage stays high (57.4 percent) when he touches the ball for 2 seconds or less. But when he puts the ball on the floor and tries to create off multiple dribbles, his effective field goal percentage plummets (below 40 percent for touches longer than 2 seconds).

So now we know Smart's next challenge at this level. He's already regarded as an above-average defender and he's shushing those shooting naysayers, but he must learn how to create both for himself and others off the dribble while attacking the basket from the point guard position.

He has the unenviable task of learning that as the memory of Rondo and his playmaking wizardry lingers for Celtics fans.

But teammates such as Turner believe it will come. He's given them no reason to believe it won't by his progress in other areas this season.