Back in late May, a league source familiar with the Celtics’ line of thinking brought up Marcus Smart, the bullish guard out of Oklahoma State and a top prospect for this year’s NBA Draft.
“He must have something that they like because he’s pretty high in their draft rankings,” the source said. “For whatever reason, they really, really like him.”
The Celtics twice brought Smart in for predraft workouts, and then president of basketball operations Danny Ainge attended a third workout elsewhere.
Truly, the team had its eye on him for some time, it snatched him up with the No. 6 overall pick Thursday.
“He’s come in here twice in the last three weeks,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “and we’ve absolutely fallen in love with his leadership and his work ethic and his spirit and how he goes about things.”
It might not have been a “fireworks” move that fans were hoping for after Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck used that term to describe the possibility of big offseason moves, especially with players such as Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Kansas 7-footer Joel Embiid off the board.
But Smart, who averaged 18 points per game to go along with 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists as a sophomore last season, said he was thrilled when the Celtics drafted him.
“It felt like fireworks on the Fourth of July,” he said in a conference call with local reporters.
Eleven picks later, the Celtics selected Kentucky freshman guard James Young, giving the team two young players who should help bolster their backcourt.
“I just think they’re two guys who can be starting players in the NBA for years to come,” Ainge said. “I just don’t want to put too much pressure on them right away. We need to let these guys develop and sort of earn their stripes. I think they’re going to have very, very bright careers.”
Smart, from Flower Mound, Texas, gives the Celtics depth at the point guard position, which they have lacked in recent years, forcing them to rely on shooting guard Avery Bradley and undrafted rookie Phil Pressey.
But what happens with starting point guard Rajon Rondo?
The four-time All-Star is entering the final year of his contract, and if Rondo leaves via trade or signs elsewhere when he becomes a free agent, the Celtics now appear to have a potential replacement.
Grousbeck doesn’t think drafting Smart means much in terms of Rondo. “I don’t think this has any impact on Rajon at all,” he said.
Teams have long called the Celtics to inquire about whether Rondo was available in a deal, and league sources said that teams will be calling even more now that the Celtics have Smart.
“They will come after Rondo for sure,” one source said.
Said another source, speaking of Rondo: “I think he will be on the move.”
When asked if the Celtics plan to move forward with Rondo, Ainge offered a blunt “Yes.”
One league source familiar with the Celtics’ line of thinking said that the team needs two point guards and could easily play both Smart and Rondo together on the court.
Could they co-exist?
“I guess,” the source said. “I was not a Smart fan, but he may be fine.”
Smart called it a “great opportunity” to play alongside Rondo.
“Rondo is a wonderful point guard, a wonderful player. He reminds me a little bit of me,” Smart said. “He plays defense. He’s long, his wingspan, and he has big hands.”
Smart returned to college for another year even though he would’ve been a lottery pick after his freshman season.
“I’d say, as an organization, we’re happy he decided to go back to school, because he wouldn’t be with the Boston Celtics if he didn’t,” Stevens said. “And we think he’s got a really high upside; he’s still a very young guy.”
Smart, 20, is considered a point guard, though he can play both guard positions.
“I can help the team in many ways,” he said. “They also talked about me playing off the ball . . . that I could play off the ball, with Rondo as well.”
Stevens said he believes the two can play together.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Stevens said. “I think it will be great for Marcus to have a guy like Rondo to look up to, to learn from. Not many guys get that opportunity, especially early on in the draft like this.”
And Ainge praised Smart’s versatility.
“He can play off the ball, he can handle the ball,” Ainge said. “With his length and his size, he can probably play against a lot of small forwards — 6-3, long wingspan, 230 pounds. He’s a very versatile player.”
Though some scouts and executives have questions about Smart’s shooting ability — he made only 42.2 percent of his shots last season and was 29.9 percent from the 3-point line — his leadership skills and intangibles were lauded by many.
“Just a really fun player to watch,” Ainge said. “Again, just that competitive [spirit]. He gets the juices going and is very competitive. He’s a very passionate player. It’s just hard not to want to follow him.”
The one notable blemish on Smart’s reputation is from a Feb. 8 incident when he shoved a fan after a verbal spat during a game at Texas Tech, but Smart addressed it head-on during interviews with teams.
“I told them that’s something that happened that’s in the past,” Smart said at the draft combine in May. “I’m not proud of it. But I’m trying to move on from that.”
At 227 pounds, Smart is said to be NBA-ready from a physical standpoint, and the Celtics love his aggressive style.
“We like the fact that he’s an instigator, back to Red [Auerbach],” Grousbeck said, referencing the Celtics patriarch. “As Red told me personally when I came in, ‘You need instigators, not retaliators.’ This kid is energetic. He’s a bull. He’s a force. When I met him, he filled the doorway. He’s got that physique and that drive and that attitude that we really like around the Celtics.”
Said Ainge: “Marcus is a terrific defender. Really defends the pick and roll. He’s a guy that goes downhill on pick and rolls, gets to the basket, absorbs contact, plays through contact, initiates contact.”
The Celtics’ second pick of the first round, Young, finished 10th in the Southeastern Conference in 3-point shooting (35 percent), giving the Celtics a perimeter scoring threat that they desperately need.
Young won’t turn 19 until August 16, making him the second-youngest player in the draft behind Gordon.
He was reportedly in a recent minor car accident that kept him from working out for several teams during the predraft process, which potentially hurt his draft stock.
Young said he was excited to team up with Smart, whom he roomed with at the Chicago combine.
“We kind of got that feel for one another,” Young said. “Just the way he plays, is just tough. That’s how Boston players are. I feel like he fits in great with them. I’m tough like that, too. So I feel like me and him can bring that toughness together in the backcourt, it can create a lot of problems for the other team.”
And though the Celtics weren’t able to pull off any bid deals, Grousbeck said there is still time.
“The trade season is not over yet,” he said. “I always said ‘fireworks’ were a possibility. It takes two to tango around here . . . We like to be aggressive about rebuilding this team. We like to try to become contenders as quickly as possible.”