As the Boston Celtics prepare to embark on a 2016-17 season featuring heightened expectations after last year's 48-win campaign, one player who is consistently referenced as a key for the team taking the next step forward is third-year guard Marcus Smart.
With the departure of Evan Turner to Portland, Smart is expected to take on an even larger role in Boston. The Celtics are hoping he can find the sort of offensive consistency that will turn him into a game-changing presence on both ends of the floor.
During a recent appearance on The Ringer's NBA Show podcast, Stevens praised Smart's impact on the court.
"One of the things I really like about Marcus is, when Marcus is here, you know he's here," said Stevens. "You know he's in the room, you know he's in the game, you know he's in a defensive drill in practice. He's got a presence about him that he just, he can liven a room. And he's got a great competitive spirit about him.
"Defensively, obviously, he's probably as advanced as any guy that I had ever coached at that age. Not just from the standpoint of the physical toughness and strength and athleticism, but also just the understanding of where to be at the right time. He clearly had great coaching growing up, and he just knows the game. Then, offensively, I think that as he continues to progress -- and everybody has talked about his shooting, which I know he's worked really hard on -- and especially has continued to figure out where his best options and best shots will come from. But the other parts of his game, offensively, I think have really expanded. He’s been better off the pick-and-roll in Year 2. I thought he did a great job of getting into the paint, finishing, kicking out, making plays, especially during the playoffs.
"But I think his greatest strength will always be that he's a guy that makes winning plays that sometimes aren't quantified, whether that's guarding a [Paul] Millsap for eight minutes, or guarding [Kristaps] Porzingis for six minutes, or guarding the point guard for the next four. He's just a guy that will do anything you ask to help this team win."
As for rookie Jaylen Brown, Stevens sounded excited to explore the 19-year-old's potential and said Brown will get an immediate education from his veteran teammates. Stevens said the competition Brown will see in practice each day will force him to develop.
"I think Jaylen's in a good situation to learn and grow because he's coming into a team that has some perimeter players that are very established that will make him very uncomfortable in practice every single day," said Stevens. "And they'll do it on both ends of the floor. For him to have to be matched up against Jae [Crowder] or Avery [Bradley] or, if we play him at the 4 some, against a Jae or a Jonas [Jerebko] -- whatever the case may be, those are hard matchups. That should be the best part of the learning curve for Jaylen.
"The other thing is we have to constantly remind ourselves as a staff that he's 19, one year removed from one year of college. I think that he's got a high upside, and we're looking forward to working with him, but I think we also understand he's got a large learning curve."
Brown, the No. 3 pick in June's draft, joins a team that must balance his development with a desire to take a step forward after winning 48 games last season. There's a potential for playing time as the team tries to fill the swingman minutes vacated by Turner's departure, and there's a need for wing depth behind starter Crowder.
What's been obvious since the Celtics drafted Brown is that he will bring an infusion of much-needed athleticism (see this tweet from fellow rookie Demetrius Jackson in which Brown recently showed off a between-the-legs jam during a pickup session at nearby Harvard University).
Brown's defensive versatility will make him an intriguing option for Stevens. The key could be developing his offensive game. Brown showed an ability to attack the basket and get to the free throw line during summer league -- and mixed in some of those highlight-caliber dunks -- but playing against the likes of All-Defense first-teamer Bradley and nearly All-Defense second-teamer Crowder will force him to expand his offensive arsenal.
Asked on The Ringer podcast about the possibility of trotting out Brown as part of defensive-minded lineups alongside the likes of Bradley, Crowder, Marcus Smart and newcomer Al Horford, Stevens admitted he's intrigued by the possibilities. The Celtics mingled in the top three in terms of defensive rating much of last season before finishing tied for fourth in that category alongside the Golden State Warriors. Stevens wants to see his team improve and not rest on what it accomplished last year.
"I think you could throw some other names in there, too, and still really be able to move around, fly around the court, full rotate and/or switch. You’ve got some defensive versatility and flexibility there," said Stevens. "I’ve been in this situation before where we are coming off a very good year defensively, statistically, like our team is, and you can take one of two ways: You can take the approach that we’ve arrived and not commit to the details and just think it’s going to happen, or you can become even better in those little things, realize if this group becomes great in details, it’s got a chance to be a very good defense because of the way we can impact the ball, then we could be good. It could go either way.
"The best answer I can give you right now is, time will tell. I am excited to try those things and, as we get ready for training camp, those are things that are all over my board."