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The Celtics’ Marcus Smart can’t shoot. Here’s why he’s an all-star contributor though.

The Celtics’ Marcus Smart can’t shoot. Here’s why he’s an all-star contributor though.
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The Boston Celtics are 4.2 net points per 100 possessions better with Marcus Smart on the court. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

Since 2015, when Brad Stevens coached a motley crew of unheralded players on the Boston Celtics to the eight-seed, the team has been defying expectations. It’s no coincidence that’s the same time Marcus Smart entered the league. Many statistical-based draft models saw him as a top two player thanks to his steal and rebounding rates, and sure enough that’s what we saw when he entered the NBA: he was a physical point guard who averaged almost three steals per 100 possessions. However, the concerns about his shooting were on point, and his true-shooting percentage was more than four percentage points below league average.



Nevertheless, the Celtics have generally performed better when Smart has been on the court. For example, this season they’ve been 4.2 points per 100 possessions better, even though he’s having another below-average season from behind the three-point line (29 percent), thanks in large part to Smart’s hidden value: his ability to draw offensive fouls.



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According to my research and Andrew Johnson’s, the ability to draw offensive fouls is more valuable than generating steals. You not only end your opponent’s possession, you’re saddling one of their players — often one of their best — with a foul.


Smart is known for charges, but it does go beyond that. You can draw other types of offensive fouls too — which I’ll refer to as “takes” — and those are generally more valuable. You can see how much of a pest he is in the clip below. This wasn’t a charge where the defender camped in the lane waiting passively for someone to plow into him; Smart was harassing Brandon Ingram and initiated enough contact to sell it to the ref. Flopping or not, it still counts at the end of the game.


The offensive foul drawn statistic is perhaps the best proxy for the heralded “no-stats all-star.” Shane Battier, the flag-bearer for those players, was averaging nearly 1 drawn foul per 100 possessions in his prime, which is well above the average of 0.25. Ricky Rubio, another point guard with difficulties shooting, was seen as a valuable figure by advanced stats due to a drawn foul rate near 1 per 100 possessions.


Looking at the highest rates for when we have data, there are a lot of players not traditionally seen as exquisite defenders. But that doesn’t invalidate the statistic’s utility. Drawing fouls is a weapon for Smart, and it signifies his activity and how he’s willing to do every little action on the court that’ll help his team win, even if it’s not recorded in a traditional box score. Also, as you can see, he does more than just take charges — he’s had some of the highest “take” rates, which are non-charge offensive fouls drawn, since he entered the league in 2015 (minimum 1,500 minutes played).





Season
Player
Team
Steals
Charges
Takes
Offensive fouls drawn


2015
Devin Harris
DAL
2.3
0.7
0.8
1.5


2016
Ersan Ilyasova
ORL
1.3
0.9
0.6
1.5


2017
Patrick Beverley
HOU
2.3
0.6
0.9
1.4


2015
Marcus Smart
BOS
2.7
0.2
1.2
1.4


2017
Ersan Ilyasova
ATL
1.3
0.8
0.6
1.4


2016
Marcus Smart
BOS
2.6
0.3
1.1
1.3


2015
DeMarcus Cousins
SAC
2.2
0.8
0.4
1.2


2018
Kyle Lowry
TOR
1.8
0.8
0.4
1.2


2015
Kyle Lowry
TOR
2.2
0.5
0.6
1.1


2015
Mario Chalmers
MIA
2.6
0.3
0.8
1.1


2016
Ricky Rubio
MIN
3.4
0.2
0.9
1.1


2017
Marcus Smart
BOS
2.5
0.5
0.6
1.1


2016
Jose Juan Barea
DAL
0.8
0.0
1.0
1.0


2016
Corey Brewer
HOU
2.4
0.5
0.5
1.0


2018
Patty Mills
SAS
1.4
0.1
0.8
0.9


2016
Patty Mills
SAS
1.7
0.2
0.7
0.9


2017
Kemba Walker
CHA
1.5
0.5
0.4
0.9


2018
Marcus Smart
BOS
2.0
0.3
0.6
0.9


2016
Jerami Grant
PHI
1.3
0.4
0.5
0.9


2015
Donatas Motiejunas
HOU
1.3
0.6
0.3
0.9



With the dominance from the Rockets and Warriors looming over the rest of the league, all NBA teams are looking for the blueprints on how to build a team capable of toppling the giants. But you don’t need direct emulation; there’s more than one way to win a game. Not every player needs to be a marksman from deep. Smart has become a valuable role player through dogged effort, intelligent passing, versatile defense, and an uncanny ability to draw offensive fouls.


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