There are far more egregious snubs than being overlooked for the NBA's Rising Stars challenge at All-Star weekend. And yet Boston Celtics fans probably scoffed a bit on Friday night if they caught a glimpse of the annual rookie/sophomore showcase and remembered that rookie Marcus Smart was not invited to participate.
Blame the new U.S. vs. the World format. Or blame Boston's first-half struggles that masked some of Smart's development to outsiders. There's probably a part of Smart that would like to be in New York this weekend, and another part that's probably happy to have a few extra days to rest his legs amid a recent uptick in floor time.
But make no mistake: Smart deserves to be at the Rising Stars challenge and, whether we remember this snub or not, it'll likely seem a curious omission to those that recall his absence in the future.
By even the most basic metrics, Smart is having an adequate rookie campaign. The No. 6 pick is averaging 6.8 points (11th among rookies), 3.5 assists (2nd), 2.9 rebounds (t-12th), and 1.2 steals (t-4th) over 24.4 minutes (6th) in 37 appearances. Smart is also shooting 35 percent beyond the arc, the second-best mark behind only top-pick Andrew Wiggins.
What the basic stat line can't quite quantify is Smart's impact on the Celtics as a whole when he's been on the floor this season. Among Boston's regulars this year, Smart owns the best net rating (the differential between the team's offensive and defensive ratings) at plus-2.1 points per 100 possessions. Only second-year big man Kelly Olynyk -- voted to the Rising Stars game, but not participating due to an ankle injury -- owns a better plus/minus this season (Olynyk is a team-best plus-85 and Smart is second at plus-39 for a Boston team that's minus-76 for the year).
And here's what's really been overlooked: Since returning from the ankle injury that wiped out most of his November, Smart has been riding an upward trajectory that culminated recently with his reinsertion into the starting lineup.
In fact, in the five game since reassuming the starting point guard role, Smart is playing a team-high 35.4 minutes per game -- three minutes more than the next closest player in backcourt mate Avery Bradley -- while averaging 8.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. Boston owns an offensive rating of 107.3 during Smart's time on the floor during that span, a number that would rank in the top 5 of the NBA if maintained.
More importantly, Boston is 4-1 in that span and has put itself in position to chase a playoff berth over the final 31 games of the season because of the recent surge.
And here's the surprising part: Smart really hasn't played great offensively during this five-game stretch. He's shooting just 31.7 percent from the floor overall and 26.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc. That's notable considering that Smart shot a blistering 43.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc during a 23-game span starting in early December.
And we haven't even talked about Smart's defense, which is so far beyond his years that it's what most separates him from his fresh-faced peers. Smart has the potential to be an All-Defense player and few 20 years olds arrive in the league with an obvious ability to impact the game so significantly at that end of the floor.
To be certain, Smart is not without his warts. Even as his 3-point percentage soared, it only magnified his reluctance to drive the ball. Smart stayed an extra year at Oklahoma State to learn the point guard position he is playing at the NBA level, but it's still a work in progress and he needs to be more aggressive off the pick-and-roll, especially to maximize Boston's offensive potential.
Smart has made recent strides there, but his growth as both a distributor and someone who can generate for himself going at the basket will be a focal point for Boston in the second half of the season and beyond.
But you have to admire Smart's mental toughness. He fought through an early shooting slump, didn't get rattled when he was moved back to a reserve role when he struggled as a starter after Rajon Rondo was traded away, and has maintained a focus on improving even when things are not going his way.
That much was evident during Boston's first-half finale against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. Smart stumbled out of the gates, missing seven of his first eight shots and posting more turnovers (4) than points (3) during a first half in which Boston was staring at a 15-point deficit at the intermission. Coach Brad Stevens even elected to start veteran Marcus Thornton in the second half while searching for an offensive spark.
Smart didn't sulk. Even after missing his first two attempts of the second half, he just kept plugging away on the defensive end. Boston was down seven with a little more than three minutes to go when Smart finally got going on the other end.
Smart cut backdoor behind Jeff Teague when Evan Turner pushed the ball hard up the court after a defensive stop and Smart fearlessly finished over Paul Millsap at the rim. The Celtics were still down 5 with a little more than two minutes to play when an offensive possession broke down. Turner fumbled the ball and got caught in a double team late in the clock, but managed to kick the ball to an open Smart on the wing. Even as DeMarre Carroll rushed out to contest, Smart splashed the triple to make it a one-possession game. Turner would win the game for Boston, capping an 18-point rally, with a floater in traffic with 0.2 seconds to play.
"Big shots, man; he made some big shots," Turner said of Smart. "I’m glad he stuck with it. That’s great mental toughness, a great way to grow as a young player."
For all the intensity he shows on the floor, Smart shrugged off his ability to fight through his early struggles in Wednesday's game.
"Just gotta keep playing -- got to," said Smart. "We play 82 games. There's going to be games like that. Just gotta remember can’t get too high, can’t get too low."
Smart shouldn't get too low about missing out on the Rising Stars game. You can make the case that, of Boston's current young players, he has the highest potential to be back at All-Star weekend in the future, and not just as a sophomore in the Rising Stars game next year.